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I have Ubuntu 12.04 and initially choosing normal Ubuntu at login gave me Ubuntu 3D. However, for a few days now, selecting either Ubuntu or Ubuntu 2D gives me 2D:

~$ echo $DESKTOP_SESSION 
ubuntu-2d
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2 Answers 2

Your graphic card is not supporting the 3d mode.

I may be a trouble with your graphic drivers. It happens often after a kernel update. (even more if it's an ati or nvidia graphic card)

You can confirm this with this command : glxinfo | grep rendering (install glxinfo if you don't have it)

You may need to reinstall your graphic driver if it's nvidia or ati.

Leave me a comment if you need more explanations.

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I was using the ATI proprietary driver (ATI/AMD proprietary FGLRX graphics driver), installed from additional drivers. I uninstalled it, booted in normal mode, and had no launchers or system bar. Then I went into 2D mode, and installed it again. This left me with the same behviour of 2d mode regardless which session I logged in as. –  steprobe May 13 '12 at 15:08
    
have you confirmed that your fglrx driver is used ? type this on a terminal and check that mesa is not mentionend : fglrxinfo –  Antoine Rodriguez May 13 '12 at 16:16

If you have a laptop with hybrid graphics it may also arise the issue you experience. Then you might want to look at the Bumblebee project which enables your hybrid graphics to work correctly.

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