When is a condition variable needed, isn't a mutex enough?

I'm sure mutex isn't enough that's the reason the concept of condition variables exist; but it beats me and I'm not able to convince myself with a concrete scenario when a condition variable is essential.

Differences between Conditional variables, Mutexes and Locks question's accepted answer says that a condition variable is a

lock with a "signaling" mechanism. It is used when threads need to wait for a resource to become available. A thread can "wait" on a CV and then the resource producer can "signal" the variable, in which case the threads who wait for the CV get notified and can continue execution

Where I get confused is that, a thread can wait on a mutex too, and when it gets signalled, is simply means the variable is now available, why would I need a condition variable?

P.S.: Also, a mutex is required to guard the condition variable anyway, when makes my vision more askew towards not seeing condition variable's purpose.


  • Even though you can use them in the way you describe, mutexes weren't designed for use as a notification/synchronization mechanism. They are meant to provide mutually exclusive access to a shared resource. Using mutexes to signal a condition is awkward and I suppose would look something like this (where Thread1 is signaled by Thread2):


    while(1) {
        lock(mutex); // Blocks waiting for notification from Thread2
        ... // do work after notification is received
        unlock(mutex); // Tells Thread2 we are done


    while(1) {
        ... // do the work that precedes notification
        unlock(mutex); // unblocks Thread1
        lock(mutex); // lock the mutex so Thread1 will block again

    There are several problems with this:

    1. Thread2 cannot continue to "do the work that precedes notification" until Thread1 has finished with "work after notification". With this design, Thread2 is not even necessary, that is, why not move "work that precedes" and "work after notification" into the same thread since only one can run at a given time!
    2. If Thread2 is not able to preempt Thread1, Thread1 will immediately re-lock the mutex when it repeats the while(1) loop and Thread1 will go about doing the "work after notification" even though there was no notification. This means you must somehow guarantee that Thread2 will lock the mutex before Thread1 does. How do you do that? Maybe force a schedule event by sleeping or by some other OS-specific means but even this is not guaranteed to work depending on timing, your OS, and the scheduling algorithm.

    These two problems aren't minor, in fact, they are both major design flaws and latent bugs. The origin of both of these problems is the requirement that a mutex is locked and unlocked within the same thread. So how do you avoid the above problems? Use condition variables!

    BTW, if your synchronization needs are really simple, you could use a plain old semaphore which avoids the additional complexity of condition variables.