shutdown -f now, thinking it will do a full power off sequence.
Instead, it ends with
*Checking battery state...
and just hangs there.
Should I add
-h switch to fully take power off, or is there some other problem?
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You're supposed to run
shutdown -h, or its alias
halt, to turn off the system; on some machines you need
shutdown -P or
poweroff. In fact, without
shutdown is not supposed to turn the computer off, it's supposed to drop into single user mode (at least with the traditional Linux SysVinit, I don't know how compatible Ubuntu's upstart is).
This doesn't preclude another issue which would cause
poweroff not to actually power down the computer. Not-fully-supported ACPI is a common culprit.
Could be an ACPI issue. Look if your distro provides an ACPI package for your brand of laptop.
It's possible this message could also come from a script executing at shutdown. Find out how your distro handles shutdown scripts and you might be able to edit that particular script to not check battery state on shutdown.