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Android CPU governors and you! (SetCPU, System Tuner, TegraK)

ThraxThrax Professional Shill, Pokémaster, Watch SlutAustin, TX Icrontian
edited Feb 2012 in Technology
This is a WIP, but I wanted to start the thread to get the ball rolling.

What is a CPU governor?
A CPU governor in Android (and other *Nix OSes) controls how the CPU raises and lowers its frequency in response to the demands the user is placing on their device. Governors are especially important in smartphones and tablets because they have a large impact on the apparent fluidity of the interface and the battery life of the device over a charge.

There are other guides out there that can give provide a more technical explanation for each governor, including such things as tunable parameters or the various thresholds that make the governors behave in the way that they do. This is not that guide. This guide is designed to be an approachable primer for the average user, which acknowledges the fact that each kernel developer may or may not have applied his or her own customizations to each governor you'll read about. The descriptions below must be considered baseline behavior.

NOTE:
You cannot change your CPU governor unless your phone is rooted and you have a ROM or app that lets you make a change. Also, different kernels (the intermediary software between your phone's hardware and the operating system) offer different sets of governors.

Also note that this guide will frequently refer to "CPU0" or "CPU1." In a dual core CPU, CPU0 is the first or "primary" CPU core, and CPU1 is actually the secondary core.

Performance Governor:
This locks the phone's CPU at maximum frequency. While this may sound like an ugly idea, there is growing evidence to suggest that running a phone at its maximum frequency at all times will allow a faster race-to-idle. Race-to-idle is the process by which a phone completes a given task, such as syncing email, and returns the CPU to the extremely efficient low-power state. This still requires extensive testing, and a kernel that properly implements a given CPU's C-states (low power states). For more on this, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus GLaDOS kernel from developer Ezekeel has been a pioneer in this space.

Conservative Governor:
This biases the phone to prefer the lowest possible clockspeed as often as possible. In other words, a larger and more persistent load must be placed on the CPU before the conservative governor will be prompted to raise the CPU clockspeed. Depending on how the developer has implemented this governor, and the minimum clockspeed chosen by the user, the conservative governor can introduce choppy performance. On the other hand, it can be good for battery life.

The Conservative Governor is also frequently described as a "slow OnDemand," if that helps to give you a more complete picture of its functionality.

OnDemand Governor:
This governor has a hair trigger for boosting clockspeed to the maximum speed set by the user. If the CPU load placed by the user abates, the OnDemand governor will slowly step back down through the kernel's frequency steppings until it settles at the lowest possible frequency, or the user executes another task to demand a ramp.

OnDemand has excellent interface fluidity because of its high-frequency bias, but it can also have a relatively negative effect on battery life versus other governors. OnDemand is commonly chosen by smartphone manufacturers because it is well-tested, reliable, and virtually guarantees the smoothest possible performance for the phone. This is so because users are vastly more likely to bitch about performance than they are the few hours of extra battery life another governor could have granted them.

This final fact is important to know before you read about the Interactive governor: OnDemand scales its clockspeed in a work queue context. In other words, once the task that triggered the clockspeed ramp is finished, OnDemand will attempt to move the clockspeed back to minimum. If the user executes another task that triggers OnDemand's ramp, the clockspeed will bounce from minimum to maximum. This can happen especially frequently if the user is multi-tasking. This, too, has negative implications for battery life.

Userspace Governor:
This governor, exceptionally rare for the world of mobile devices, allows any program executed by the user to set the CPU's operating frequency. This governor is more common amongst servers or desktop PCs where an application (like a power profile app) needs privileges to set the CPU clockspeed.

Powersave Governor:
The opposite of the Performance governor, the Powersave governor locks the CPU frequency at the lowest frequency set by the user.

Interactive Governor:
Much like the OnDemand governor, the Interactive governor dynamically scales CPU clockspeed in response to the workload placed on the CPU by the user. This is where the similarities end. Interactive is significantly more responsive than OnDemand, because it's faster at scaling to maximum frequency.

Unlike OnDemand, which you'll recall scales clockspeed in the context of a work queue, Interactive scales the clockspeed over the course of a timer set arbitrarily by the kernel developer. In other words, if an application demands a ramp to maximum clockspeed (by placing 100% load on the CPU), a user can execute another task before the governor starts reducing CPU frequency. This can eliminate the frequency bouncing discussed in the OnDemand section. Because of this timer, Interactive is also better prepared to utilize intermediate clockspeeds that fall between the minimum and maximum CPU frequencies. This is another pro-battery life benefit of Interactive.

However, because Interactive is permitted to spend more time at maximum frequency than OnDemand (for device performance reasons), the battery-saving benefits discussed above are effectively negated. Long story short, Interactive offers better performance than OnDemand (some say the best performance of any governor) and negligibly different battery life.

Interactive also makes the assumption that a user turning the screen on will shortly be followed by the user interacting with some application on their device. Because of this, screen on triggers a ramp to maximum clockspeed, followed by the timer behavior described above.

By far, Interactive is the default governor of choice for today's smartphone and tablet manufacturers.

InteractiveX Governor:
Created by kernel developer "Imoseyon," the InteractiveX governor is based heavily on the Interactive governor, enhanced with tuned timer parameters to better balance battery vs. performance. The InteractiveX governor's defining feature, however, is that it locks the CPU frequency to the user's lowest defined speed when the screen is off.

Hotplug Governor:
The Hotplug governor performs very similarly to the OnDemand governor, with the added benefit of being more precise about how it steps down through the kernel's frequency table as the governor measures the user's CPU load. However, the Hotplug governor's defining feature is its ability to turn unused CPU cores off during periods of low CPU utilization. This is known as "hotplugging."

Obviously, this governor is only available on multi-core devices.

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