I wrote the other day about me upgrading my system in order to be able to run the Preview Release of GIMP 2.8, I have it up and working, ready for real work: a preview of the new features to be expected.
So the new GIMP 2.8 release is currently in the Release Candidate stage, the final release may come any time now (wild guess: the Libre Graphics Meeting conference is taking place in a couple of weeks and it will bring together a number of its developers), previews and reviews are starting to appear, is a big deal since this release is about 1.5 years late - it was expected since December 2010 but got delayed again and again - probably it was not sexy enough for the developers, who are excited about the next release, 2.10, which is going to deliver more meaty stuff.
Major user interface change
What make titles for this release is the big interface change (I wrote about it before) which introduced optionally (not yet as default) a Single-Window Mode (activate it in the "Windows" menu). From what I see, newbies will like it, finding it less scary (my girlfriend is a good example, she saw me preparing the article, I showed her the differences, she "definitely" liked the single-window mode - she does photo editing, but with simpler apps, no GIMP, no Photoshop). Photoshop nay-sayers will hate it, they will hate anything but a total Photoshop interface cloning, which will never happen (and that is a good thing). For the rest of us, the opinion will be split, I find the single-window mode wasting more screen estate, especially on the netbook, and harder to use when working with multiple images at once. For those reasons I keep using the multi-window mode. But the single-window mode is cleaner. Here's a comparison, you decide:
Underlying library work
What's really important, but maybe less user-noticeable, is behind the scene: library work. GIMP 2.8 is an intermediary step in the progress for GEGL integration (GEGL is a graph based image processing framework that will provide the core for GIMP, allowing for much advanced features). This process started with GIMP 2.6, advanced with 2.8, will be finished in 2.10. Expect the real meaty features (like high depth color channels) in the release after 2.10 (is not know if it will be labelled 2.12 or 3.0). For now GEGL is used in some UI elements and some optional filters and tools:
Cage Transform Tool
Another feature that will make headlines is the introduction of a new tool: Cage Transform. It was developed as a GSOC project a couple of years ago and now is the time to appear in a first release. It allows do define an area (as a polygon) and then apply deformations of the parts of the image inside, by moving the nodes - while spectacular (expect a wave of digital breast enhancements), it is mostly a technology showcase for GEGL, used behind the scene, and cairofication, which allows for the on-canvas editing, expect something really useful later (2.10 or even later) in an on-canvas version of the iWarp filter which will hopefully be a worthy replacement for Photoshop's Liquify tool.
On-canvas progress indicator
Grace to cairofication, some tools have now an on-canvas progress indicator, which make GIMP a little more pleasing to the eye:
On-canvas text editing
Again with the help of Cairo, now the text editing is done on-canvas with instant preview and apply, not in a separate dialog window. Such a feature may sound trivial and expected long ago, but it needed something like Cairo for the infrastructure, is pretty and we finally have it. Is a plus.
Yet another intermediary feature: now GIMP has layer groups which will help you better organize a complex work, but expect the feature to get more useful in a later release, when it will be possible to apply filters to an entire group. For now, simple operations are possible, like setting the layer mode for the entire group.
Of curse, there are more smaller features to be found there, for example the new brushes pack and an improved brushes dialog window that provides filtering for categories. Useful for digital painting.
Many things changed in the new release, including shortcuts, so you will have to do some re-training of your reflexes (or go in the preferences and adjust them to your liking). For example, wanting for their app to be seen as "serious" and not only a "JPEG editor", the developers went for some low-hanging fruits, until real features will come (post 2.10/GEGL), we have face-lifts: having "save as JPEG" was not considered a professional feature, now you can save only as XCF (GIMP's own layered file format), for everything else you have to use Export - annoying then most of the time you just want to save as JPEG or PNG (and I say this with my photographer hat on).
As a conclusion, GIMP 2.8 is a worthy upgrade, but don't expect something earth-shattering. Have fun using it :)