The easy guide to understanding CPU and GPU governors

There are a lot of guides out there about CPU and GPU governors. They are all very informative, and usually somewhat technical. The other day, however, I needed to explain CPU and GPU governors to a non-technical person, and I realized that a lot of big verbiage and vague terms get thrown around which help the technical, but cloud the issue for some. So, I decided to share my non-technical explanation here, in hopes that it will help others also. This is not a perfect analogy, nor a technical one, but I think it gets the job done.
Consider driving your car in the rain.
The more it rains, the less you can see. Hence the slower you should drive. Each swipe of the windshield wiper clears the window. The rain is like the CPU/GPU load, or how much work the CPU/GPU needs to do to clear the windshield.

Sometimes it is raining very hard. Sometimes it is a sprinkle. But in this make believe world, it is always raining.

As the driver of the car, you get to pick the speed at which the wipers swipe. It is entirely up to you, you are the governor, or the one in charge of the windshield wipers. You can’t control how much it rains, but you can control how fast your wipers swipe the windshield clear.

There are many types of drivers out there, just like there are many governors. However, they all fall into several basic categories.

The Performance type governors are like a driver who gets into the car, and he turns on the wipers full speed. Even if it is barely raining. No matter how much rain does, or does not fall on the windshield, he keeps the wipers going full blast. This works very well to keep the windshield clear. However it also makes the wiper blades get pretty hot when it is just a sprinkle. All the friction from swiping back and forth will eventually wear out his wiper blades, and he will replace them a lot sooner if he does this, but his windshield will stay clear!

The Powersave type of governors are like a driver who gets into her car and turns the wipers on at the lowest possible speed, with the longest delay between swipes. This works great if it is just sprinkling, but anytime she gets into a down pour, she has to practically come to a stop, because she can’t see where she is going through all that rain on her windshield.

The On Demand type governors, are the drivers who are always adjusting by wild amounts. “Oh, it’s raining harder, I will turn the wipers all the way up!” He says. “Oh, I guess that was too much. I’ll turn them down now.” Back and forth this driver goes, always pushing up to maximum wiper speed, only to find that he should probably turn the wiper speed down. Often, this guy is over-adjusting for the actual amount of rain, but his windshield stays pretty clear. Essentially, he has become his own delay module, waiting for rain on the windshield, he then turns on the wipers to clear it, then practically turns the wipers off. Then repeat, over and over again.

The Conservative type governors, however, take a more methodical approach. When she sees that it is raining harder, she turns her wiper speed up one notch. Then she waits a few seconds to see how well that works. Not enough wiper speed to keep the window clear? Then she will turn up the wiper speed another notch. Still not enough? Then she turns the wiper speed up another notch. One notch at a time, with a moment to check the results before making another correction. Then, if the wipers are too fast, she turns them down one notch. The process continues, constantly adjusting, one notch at a time. This can work very well. It can also be problematic if there is a huge change in the amount of rain. If it was sprinkling, and then starts to pour, it may be a while before she gets her wiper blades to “catch up” with the amount of rain.

Of course, there are Ideal frequency governors. This man has already determined that if it is raining, he will use a particular delay or speed setting for his wipers. He may adjust them slightly if it is raining more or less, but he will always strive to keep his wipers at the setting that he already determined was the one that he thought was best. Usually this setting is somewhere in the middle. Not really performance, not quite powersave, just somewhere in the middle that he thinks is best. This can work good for average use, but can be taxing your battery while “coasting” and can be less able to handle heavy rains (high work loads).

Then there are the dependent type of governors. This person gets into her car and begins to drive through the rain. Rather than setting her wipers based on her view out the window, this lady sets her wiper speed based on some other variable. For instance, the Intellidemand governor sets the CPU frequency based on GPU speed. This would be like a woman who sets her wiper speed based on her car’s speedometer. If she is driving faster, then she turns up the wiper speed. If she is driving slower, then she turns down her wiper speed. It makes sense, but works only as good as the thing controlling it. It seems like a good idea, if you drive faster, you need a clearer windshield, so you should wipe the rain away faster. The only issue here is that it may not be raining very hard, yet, because you are driving faster, you must set your wipers to swipe faster. Generally this works very well, but may not work in every condition. Some of these governors have other variables, such as “touch poke” where the CPU frequency, or wiper speed, goes up when you touch the screen. Much like turning up the wiper speed when the hi-beam headlights get turned on.

Essentially, all governors are like one or more, or some combination of, the above. Most simply fine tune the variables or combine some functions of the above to get the results they want. Some are designed for power saving, others for performance.
So, which one is the best?

Well, that depends. Is it raining really hard all the time? Does it barely rain at all? Is there just a good gully-wash once a day, and other than that it is just a sprinkle?

Lots of people argue over which one is the best, but it is really hard to quantify. The reality of it is not which governor is the “best” but which governor is the “best for you”. Only you know what your daily “rainfall” is like. Perhaps you are okay with driving a little slower in the rain. You might even enjoy it. Maybe you have ADD and need that windshield spotless all the time. I don’t know.

A few thoughts for you to consider though:

Do you need your phone to be battery friendly?
I get up at 4:30 AM every morning for work. I put my phone back on the charger every night around 8-9 PM. My battery only has to last 16-17 hours. Typically, based on my choices and daily use, I average about 50% battery life left when I put it on the charger. Based on my usage, I could choose a more performance driven governor, and not have to worry too much about battery usage. If you are always out and about, in the wild, hiking, camping, fishing, you may want to consider a more battery friendly option to extend your use for longer trips between chargers. My point being that it does you little good to choose so many battery friendly options that your phone lasts 6 days on a charge, but you plug it in every night.

Do you need your phone to out perform anybody?
I don’t play video games. I rarely watch youtube/hulu/netflix/vudu/(name your video streaming service here) on my phone. Do I need a performance based governor? Sure, the benchmarks are impressive, but does it really mater that you are clocking max speeds to check you email?

You don’t have to choose just one setting.
Many people get “stuck in a rut” (back to our car analogy) when it comes to settings like governors. With apps such as Kernel Adiutor, Device Control, and others, you can set profiles, or make backup configurations that you can quickly implement when you want to. If you hardly use your phone when you are at work, but become a gaming fiend at home. Maybe it is the opposite, at work you use your phone for serious number crunching with some math apps, and at home it just becomes your telephone. Choose a different option that suits your needs in each instance.

What do I use?
Well, again, it really depends on what you do day to day. For me, I play chess on my phone, read a Bible app, I check my emails (work and home), I browse the internet, Github, WordPress and XDA, take a few pictures of the kids, make a few phone calls, and send a few texts. That’s it. So for me, I use the Lionheart governor for my CPU. The vote is still out on GPU, but I have been testing the Simple GPU governor, and I think that it works pretty well.

Linux – keep it simple.

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