It has to be said that Gnome is maturing into a very nice desktop environment, and the 2.26 release sees only minor tweaks here and there. Sadly, many of the key features boasted about on the Gnome Web site are skipped in the Ubuntu distribution of Gnome. You won't see the Empathy Instant Messenger, for example, unless you specifically install it. On the other hand, Ubuntu's IM choice of Pidgin is better right now, so this is a good thing. Evolution sees a few new additions, primarily in the area of Windows integration, although missing from Ubuntu's Gnome distribution is the all-new ability to import Microsoft Outlook PST files (the central database of messages). This seems to be because the libpst library is missing, but I haven't investigated any further. Still, this is a shame.
One of the features slated for 8.10, but postponed until 9.04, is the Computer Janitor program. This lives on the System, Administration menu. Unfortunately, it doesn't work in the beta, complaining that a package is missing, but I played with it in the alpha releases I've tested. It's purpose is to get rid of old packages, such as old kernel files that stick around when you upgrade. As far as I can tell, it's a GUI equivalent of typing sudo apt-get autoremove and sudo apt-get clean at the command-prompt. Beware, however, that it might be a little overzealous: in one of my tests using the alpha release, it considered no longer necessary a package I'd installed by hand (TrueCrypt). I had a little too much faith in it, and agreed to its deletion, only to have to reinstall the package afterwards.
Technically Brasero should be discussed under the Gnome 2.26 heading, because the program is officially part of the Gnome desktop experience. And like Gnome itself, Brasero is maturing quite nicely. The big change in Ubuntu 9.04 is that it has entirely replaced Gnome's built-in CD/DVD Creator, that formerly lived on the Places menu. In this beta release, there are two menu entries for Brasero on the Applications menu: one under Sound & Video, which starts the full Brasero interface, and one under the System Tools menu, that starts Nautilus in CD/DVD recorder mode. When the Write To Disc button is hit, after you've dragged across the files you want to burn, Nautilus hands over to Brasero to actually create the disc.
In his announcement of the 9.04 release, Mark Shuttleworth only laid down two demands that were of interest as far as end-users were concerned: faster booting and integration with web apps. The first nail has been squarely hit on the head, but the second seems to have been entirely ignored. Firefox doesn't have Google Gears installed, for example, and the interesting Prism project, that "wraps" online applications to make them appear like local apps, hasn't been integrated.
It doesn't even appear that the version of Firefox supplied is the exciting new 3.1 release--the version number supplied with the beta is 3.0.7 (although admittedly 3.1 is still in beta). Personally, I believe that online applications are going to become more and more important in future, so I'm disappointed that Ubuntu isn't making any progress in this direction. There's a real chance to make a stake on virgin ground here, and it's land that Microsoft and Apple don't even know exist yet. Still, here's hoping for the Ubuntu 9.10 release in October. (Until then, anybody wholly committed to the online application experience can use gOS, which takes Ubuntu and adds-in exactly what Shuttleworth requested.)
Should you upgrade to Ubuntu 9.04 when it's released? To be honest, I don't see any reason not too. But I also have trouble of thinking of reasons why you should. With each new release of Ubuntu, it's becoming harder and harder for me to make a genuine recommendation, and this is something that worries me. The only compelling reason I can think of making the upgrade to 9.04 is the faster boot times, and the possibility of experimenting with ext4 file systems. Other than that, you're perhaps better sticking with 8.10, or even the 8.04 LTS release, which despite being a year old, remains a strong and stable release that's perfect for most users. With the recent raft of bug fixes, it just gets better and better. I use 8.04 LTS on most of my computers.
Keir Thomas is the award-winning author of several books on Ubuntu, including Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference.