Ubuntu’s Unity desktop environment requires 3D acceleration to run. If you don’t have a compatible graphics card or don’t have the drivers installed, Unity will fall back to the classic interface. Fortunately the free VirtualBox virtual machine software is capable of providing the necessary 3D acceleration to a virtual Ubuntu desktop, provided of course that the host system has it.

  1. You’ll need the latest version of VirtualBox. Unless you’re already using Ubuntu 11.04, the version in the repositories is too old. You can download the latest version for a variety of platforms from the VirtualBox website.
  2. Install Ubuntu in VirtualBox normally. Unity will fall back to the classic desktop.
  3. In the settings for your virtual machine, under Display->Video select Enable 3D Acceleration and bump the video memory up to 32 MB.
  4. Inside the virtual machine, install the package virtualbox-ose-guest-x11 using Synaptic or the terminal:
    sudo apt-get install virtualbox-ose-guest-x11
  5. Reboot the virtual machine and you should be able to log into Unity.

Unity runs completely smooth in my virtual machine and I haven’t noticed any graphical glitches.

If the panel and applications appear gray and unthemed, gnome-settings-daemon is crashing. You can work around this bug by restarting it:
killall gnome-settings-daemon
gnome-settings-daemon &

Update: Ubuntu 11.10 will detect that it’s running in VirtualBox and offer to install the guest additions driver automatically. You don’t even need to reboot the virtual machine after installing it; just return to the login screen and make sure the Unity environment is selected before you log in again. Impressive!

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