Back in the day I used to look after big desktop deployments both here at Atkins and a few other places. Managing large numbers of desktops is always a problem. There’s no doubt that managed desktops are A Good Thing(TM), but the tools available to do the job were always a bit harsh on either the end users or the IT guys.
Whilst Group Policy is great, you almost always needed other scripts and tools to get the complete result you wanted. Whether those were included in the image or applied at logon it didn’t really matter, they were a pain to manage. Group Policy also completely enforces the settings, there is no way to set the default value, but allow the users to edit the setting if they wished. Once its set, that’s it for Joe User.
The new Group Policy Preferences functionality allows you to configure mapped drives, deploy files, setup shortcuts, quick launch buttons etc, manage ODBC sources, IE settings, all kinds of stuff. It can also filter the settings on a per setting basis, no need to have new policies for each filter like GPO. Plus the range of criteria available for those filters is huge.
There’s too much detail to go into here, but take a look at this screencast over at Technet Edge to see some examples. It’s good stuff and will take a lot of work out of the more detailed config that enterprise managed desktops require.