The new features
The first visual change a user will see after loading Gnome 2.12 for the first time is a brand new default theme: Clearlooks. The theme is very clean, concise and most distributions and power users have already adopted it months ago.
Nautilus now features a "path navigation" scheme too, similar to the GTK+ file selector's. The old text navigation input box is still available, but unfortunately not through a preference option, but only via a shortcut. There is also an updated sidepane on Nautilus now, with more views: bookmarks, places while Nautilus now also sports a spatial tree file view. The "Open Terminal" Nautilus menu option is now removed, and users will have to manually install a third party plugin to get it back or by using the right script.
On the core side, GTK+ 2.8.x now depends on Cairo which offers vector support among other things. Drag'n'drop was also improved, while Gnome now features clipboard management, meaning that you don't lose your clipboard's contents if you close the application that generated them (this is the default X behavior). HAL also works better with GnomeVFS now; I was able to mount my iPod Mini easily.
There are a few new applications integrated to Gnome Desktop now. The "About me" application which allows you to insert your personal information once and then have application reuse that information automatically, much as how it happens on PDAs. The mouse preference panel now allows you to select cursor themes, but unfortunately it doesn't let you install new ones. Totem is now part of Gnome and hopefully Rhythmbox will follow on Gnome 2.14, while Sound Juicer has major new features, such as song preview before importing. The Keyring application is also now included, but I must say that I don't personally have a great need for it. Evince is also now part of Gnome. I like Evince very much, however poppler (its underlying library) is pretty buggy. See the last screenshot for more.
Small changes and feature additions were also made to the Dictionary app, Epiphany (handles RSS), EOG, Gnome panel, Help Viewer, Search, Battery applet, "Add to Panel" applet, Evolution, Weather applet, CD playback applet and more.
On the administration side, you will find the Gnome-system-tools package which supports networking, user & groups, Services and Time & Date. Please note that only a few distributions are supported by these panels (Debian, Ubuntu and Fedora seem to be the best supported of the bunch). Sabayon is also there for those who want to play with user profiles, even if not officially part of Gnome yet. I must say that I don't fully 'get' Sabayon: its Help files are less than helpful. Two more new administration applications are the Log Viewer and the Menu Editor. I don't like the current menu editor as it is very under-featured. You can't create new shortcut items, only make the existing ones visible or hidden. Smeg will still be my number one choice regarding menu editing.
General thoughts on Gnome
It's been a few years since I reviewed Gnome for the last time. Since then, Gnome has matured and made most things right -- except the spatial Nautilus that I personally don't like and the downplay of the Nautilus scripting/plugin engine. But all in all, Gnome is today more powerful, better integrated to the underlying system with DBUS and HAL, looks good, behaves as expected and, most of all, it's simple and clean. In my opinion, the Gnome Desktop is the best X11 desktop system today from the user's point of view when compared to the rest of the DE solutions.
However, the biggest two problems I see on Gnome today are:
1. Incomplete/confusing API documentation. New developers have to read source code and beg on mailing lists to get their code up and running instead of having a complete and sane documentation at their disposal like Qt developers do. If KDE has the upper hand in one thing over Gnome, it is their great RAD tools and API documentation, both provided by Trolltech, a commercial company that have perfected these tools and their docs for their own business. Without developers that have good tools on their hands, no platform can go anywhere. It's all starting from the developers and the Gnome Project must pledge extra care for their new or potential developers.
2. The pace of development seems to be slower than in the past, it seems that not many major features are implemented anymore, at least not enough compared to KDE. Gnome 3.0 is still a long way off and as an (occasional) Gnome user I want to see more action. KDE has a full front-end to the Bluetooth stack, for example, Gnome has none (except Edd Dumbill's third party 'Gnome Bluetooth' which only supports one (Obex) of the 7-8 common Bluetooth functionalities). Phone and PDA syncing that actually works is a must too (no, Gnome Pilot doesn't count anymore). Memory and speed optimizations would be most welcome too.
Gnome 2.12 is an evolutionary step in the 2.x release. Gnome could still add more features or applications, pay more attention to the detail and further improve usability. However, even as it is today, Gnome 2.12 is the best X11 DE there is. Given some more enthusiasm and features & better dev tools and docs, Gnome will have nothing to fear not only from underdog & lean XFce, but not even from its closest rival, the feature-rich KDE. Gnome is the king of X11's user experience.
Note: the hardware used was a 2.8 GHz P4 LinuxCertified laptop.