Disabling cores to reduce the Pi Zero 2 W's power consumption by half

By default, the new Pi Zero 2 W (see my Zero 2 W review here) runs a 4-core ARM Cortex A53 CPU at 1 GHz.

Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W BGA Xray pattern with mini Raspberry Pi Logo

If you haven't seen my full blog post exploring the Zero 2 W from the inside, complete with X-ray imagery—go check it out now!

From my review, I found that the Zero 2 uses 100 mA at idle (compared to 80 mA for the single-core Pi Zero W that preceded it), but will use up to 500 mA full-tilt, when all four CPU cores are maxed out.

For many users of the Zero 2, this is no problem, as the extra multicore performance is worth it. But a few people asked whether disabling cores could save energy in situations where the software running on the Zero 2 wasn't multithreaded or didn't need multiple CPU cores to run effectively.

So I tried it! Booting up a fresh instance of 32-bit Pi OS, I checked on the cores:

pi@zero:~ $ lscpu
Architecture:        armv7l
Byte Order:          Little Endian
CPU(s):              4
On-line CPU(s) list: 0-3
Thread(s) per core:  1
Core(s) per socket:  4
Socket(s):           1
Vendor ID:           ARM
Model:               4
Model name:          Cortex-A53
Stepping:            r0p4
CPU max MHz:         1000.0000
CPU min MHz:         600.0000
BogoMIPS:            38.40
Flags:               half thumb fastmult vfp edsp neon vfpv3 tls vfpv4 idiva idivt vfpd32 lpae evtstrm crc32

Running stress-ng -c 4 yielded anywhere between 370-460 mA of power consumption, measured by my PowerJive USB power meter—translating to about 2.3W of power usage.

I tried disabling core 3, by running echo 0 > /sys/devices/system/cpu/cpu3/online as root, but got:

root@zero:/home/pi# echo 0 > /sys/devices/system/cpu/cpu3/online
bash: /sys/devices/system/cpu/cpu3/online: Permission denied

So next, I tried using the maxcpus option in the kernel command line. I edited the /boot/cmdline.txt file and added maxcpus=1 after console=tty1, then saved the file and rebooted.

Upon rebooting, I noticed there was only one Raspberry Pi instead of the customary 4 on the HDMI output—a good sign if any!

Raspberry Pi boot logo showing one processor core

I logged in and checked:

pi@zero:~ $ lscpu
Architecture:         armv7l
Byte Order:           Little Endian
CPU(s):               4
On-line CPU(s) list:  0
Off-line CPU(s) list: 1-3
Thread(s) per core:   1
Core(s) per socket:   1
Socket(s):            1
Vendor ID:            ARM
Model:                4
Model name:           Cortex-A53
Stepping:             r0p4
CPU max MHz:          1000.0000
CPU min MHz:          600.0000
BogoMIPS:             64.00
Flags:                half thumb fastmult vfp edsp neon vfpv3 tls vfpv4 idiva idivt vfpd32 lpae evtstrm crc32

So it looks like that worked! Now, I tried running stress-ng again, and sure enough, the power consumption averaged 200 mA (less than half of the 4-core reading), spiking only as high as 260 mA, so less than 1.3W.

200ma Raspberry Pi Zero 2 with disabled CPU cores power savings

I still couldn't manually bring a core online or offline as root, so it looks like you can only manage them via the kernel cmdline.txt options at boot.

I ran the pts/encode-mp3 test that's part of the Phoronix suite, to see if the performance would match my previous run, and since it's basically a single-threaded test, it did:

MP3 encode benchmark with single-threaded Phoronix text on Pi Zero 2 W with cores disabled

So there you have it—with the Pi Zero 2 W, you can reduce power consumption if you don't need to use multiple cores for your project, by disabling them.


Interesting - perhaps now this could be packaged into a nice UI element to streamline the process, and make it possible to change the number of CPUs on the go - with just a reboot.

there is also isolcpus kernel parameter, then the cpu is added to list of available cpus but nothing is scheduled to it unless you explicitly do it via sched_setaffinity , that could be a compromise

Thats interesting - Did you ever do a review on what disabling cores on the 4B does?

What was the idle consumption with one core ? Many people use a zero (W) for battery operation where its idle most of the time and then kicks in to do some work based on some IO or timed operation. I was writing off the Zero W 2 as a bit of a gimmick until your test shows that its possible to lower the power consumption. From my understanding, not many micro-controllers can run full linux with all the nice IO, camera CSI & wifi with less power than the zero. Can you actually beat the old Zero W with a new V2 one with the one core set to clock speed to give comparable compute power ?

Oooh interesting, thanks Jeff! I've got a project that runs off PC-supplied USB so try and keep within the 500mA limit - this could be a handy way of gaining more performance without pushing the power demands too high...

Hi Jeff, will you try to setup a script that can set how many cores on next boot, guess most Linux people can edit a file but always good to have something can be use immediately, also ... did you try this on Pi4 or Pi3, when using portable battery it's a great news, thanks for your work.

Was this test run with the Wifi/Bluetooth Enabled or disabled?

Hm, I did some tcp streaming with libcamera in 1920x1080 which consumes around 350-400 mA. Then I disabled two cores it it... was still around 350 - 400 mA (I confirmed the cores were really disabled). In idle it also stayed around 120-130mA for me. I also had the camera and i2c enabled.

So yeah, its very application specific I guess.

You know that the ARM cores are only guest processors on any Pi running a secondary OS like Linux? The thing that has control and where the video stuff is processed is the VideoCore running ThreadX. That's why this works the same way even on a single ARM Pi like A/B/Zero at an ARM clock of 200 MHz since the real work is done on the VideoCore IV cores.

late to the comment party, but you should be able to achieve almost the same results by setting CPU affinity...

What was the RPi Zero W's load current in your MP3 Encode experiment? Was is close to the 260mA that the single core RPi Zero 2 W consumed? If that is the case, would you say that the cores in the Zero 2 W are twice as energy efficient? The extra 20mA of idle current that the Zero 2 W has is not too bad, but if the Zero 2 W enters idle quicker there could be a net energy benefit (say if the Zero W spends half its time under load).

Measured 130mA @5.012V with all 4 cores running 64bit bookword RPiOS in IDLE. Booted with single CPU enabled (checked with /proc/cpuinfo) and measured 132mA @5.009V. No idle current difference between 1 or 4 cores enabled.

Just wanted to say thanks for this - I've got a headphone amp and I've crammed in a Pi Zero 2 W powered via a LM7805 taking a feed from a dual power supply, and was stuck in a boot loop. Changing the cores has made it all stable!

I would try to set lower clock 600mhz instead of disabling cores. I noticed on Rpi 4 that all cores alway have the same clock. So also inactive cores. Then I would try do disable cores.