May as well put out a positive YES for R2009 here.
R2009 has improved rendering over R2008 : To get a good rendering now, just type in
LIGHTINGUNITS, set it to 2. Apply your materials-if you use realistic shading while doing so, then you get feedback that you have applied the materials.
Turn on Full shadows, then Sun and illumination-sky. You can use the visualising tab on the ribbon-just seems easier than fishing around in menus or typing.
Select the your geographical region, time of day etc and then press render, using say 640x480.
You should be pleasantly surprised. Ok, so not everyone is into rendering....but if enough users start out using the above approach, I would anticipate a huge increase in rendering.
I'm no expert in all this, but it seems to me that this business of "final gather" is involved.
Usually this is set to auto, and sometimes to get it kicked into life you need to set it to ON.
The thing about "final gather" is that, when it is enabled, all the shadows which used to be black, now look a lot more realistic.
Once you get a nicer rendering, save it as a tiff file, I find a resolution of 2400 x 1800 quite good for nice sharp pictures. They can take a while though-15 minutes is normal.
I hope to be able to post a typical rendering of mine soon.