Generating condition code

In Program flow - loops and decisions, we learned that the  <cond> is tested against the ALU flags stored in PSTATE.

The ALU flags are set as a side effect of data-processing instructions. To recap, an S at the end operation causes the ALU flags to be updated. This is an example of an instruction in which the ALU flags are not updated:

ADD	X0, X1, X2

This is an example of an instruction in which the ALU flags are updated with the use of S:

ADDS	X0, X1, X2

This method allows software to control when the flags are updated or not updated. The flags can be used by subsequent condition instructions. Let's take the following code as an example:

SUBS	X0, X5, #1 
AND X1, X7, X9 
B.EQ label

The SUBS instruction performs a subtract and updates the ALU flags. Then the AND instruction performs an and operation, and does not update the ALU flags. Finally, the B.EQ instruction performs a conditional branch, using flags set as result of the subtract.

The flags are:

  • N - Negative
  • C - Carry
  • V - Overflow
  • Z - Zero

Let’s take the Z flag as an example. If the result of the operation was zero, then the Z flag is set to 1. For example, here the Z flag will be set if X5 is 1, otherwise it will be cleared:

SUBS	X0, X5, #1 

The condition codes map on to these flags and come in pairs. Let's take EQ (equal) and NE (not equal) as an example, and see how they map to the Z flag:

The EQ code checks for Z==1. The NE code checks for Z==0.

Taking the following code as an example:

SUBS	W0, W7, W9            // W0 = W7 - W9
B.EQ label

In the first line, we have a subtract operation. Because we used the S suffix, this subtract operation sets the Z flag if the result is zero. In the final line, there is a branch to label if Z==1.

If w7==w9, the result of the subtraction will be zero, and the Z flag would have been set. Therefore, the branch to label will be taken if w7 and w9 are equal.

In addition to the regular data-processing instructions, other instructions are available that only update the ALU flags:

CMP - Compare

TST - Test

These instructions are aliases of other instructions. For example:

CMP X0, X7     //an alias of SUBS XZR, X0, X7
TST W5, #1 //an alias of ANDS WZR, W5, #1

By using the Zero register as a destination, we are discarding the result of the operation and only updating the ALU flags.

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