Don’t upgrade Ubuntu on old Thinkpads

Basic message of this post: If you have an old Thinkpad with a built-in Intel graphics driver (particularly a R50e), do not upgrade to the latest version of Ubuntu (Lucid Lynx) as there is a critical bug with the graphics handling. I made the mistake of upgrading this weekend and now I’m stuck with a broken system.

The first thing which went wrong was that my screen went blank after rebooting. Nothing would make X load, the only way out was to hold down the power button until the laptop switched off. Admittedly this is mentioned briefly in the release notes, but it is right at the bottom and no attention is brought to it, despite the fact that this problem effectively renders your laptop unusable.

Yes, there are workarounds, but they’re not exactly user-friendly. I’ve been using Linux for 10 years now and I can follow the instructions, but I suspect a relatively new user would struggle. There is no one workaround which will fix every system, you have seven to choose from. I tried three with little to no success and eventually chose the nuclear option of switching to vesa in order to avoid the drivers altogether. This means that I can’t play DVDs or games, but on the other hand my system runs and I can continue to write code without having to reboot every 30-60 minutes.

Second problem is that Flash stops working, which is rather annoying as it means I can’t watch programs on iPlayer. Thankfully this is not mission-critical and can be solved by running the following command:

sudo dpkg-reconfigure flashplugin-installer

The only good thing about this problem is that it has forced me to bring forward my decision to buy a new laptop, otherwise I might have kept putting off the purchase. I am a bit concerned about the Ubuntu QA though, as this sort of major bug shouldn’t end up in a release—especially a Long Term Support release—and it’s the second time a widespread bug which brings down systems has snuck in. 🙁