I didn't say ESRI's database was bad, just that there are probably better local sites available. I wouldn't waste my time on super high res stuff unless it was already available. Long load times stink. But, the super high res stuff is good if you wanna print a big copy at Kinkos or on the uni plotter for the landowner. I have personally had bad luck with downloading maps from an online service. I've gone through database connections and all that, and big files (which imagery tends to be), take extra long to load. Not worth the extra effort, IMO, but if they have some good files of something else you need, go for it.
I personally don't care for the ArcView license...it's a little too limited for some functions I use. I'm used to the higher level licenses, but Arc really pisses me off on a regular basis. ESRI have done some things with that program that just don't make good sense. Nobody's perfect, of course, but for what I've paid, I'm happy with my Manifold license. It has a different interface that takes some getting used to, but it has a different set of limitations for its lower licenses than Arc, and that different set of limitations works better for me. Also, Arc flat out doesn't work on Vista, so that ruled it out. I wasn't aware of the student copy price, as nobody talked that up, but I imagine it's still one of the lower level licenses, anyway.
Some open source software is killer. OpenOffice is every bit as good as MS's Office, but for free. Some stuff fails muster spectacularly. QGIS is somewhere in between. It integrates with GPSBabel, so it's good for conversion. But, it doesn't work well with popular proprietary formats (like geodatabases), which hobbles it. It's really limited when it comes to generating attractive final printable maps. That's why I bought Manifold in the end. It still has uses, and since it's free, it's no big deal to install and just use when you need it. DNR Garmin is another free program that just works. It's small, does the job it's asked to do, and not much else. It's nice to take .shp files of say a boundary, put it on the GPS, and see where your position falls when scouting, or when checking to make sure a trail stays inside the park or something.
I remember 3.x. I think I still have a trial copy floating around somewhere. I remember how earth shattering 8.x was, and how much that changed things. Yeah, some versions of 9.x have been buggy, but 9.3 has been good to me. I haven't used 9.3.1 yet.