cabal new-build is a package manager
An old article I occasionally see cited today is Repeat after me: "Cabal is not a Package Manager". Many of the complaints don't apply to cabal-install 1.24's new Nix-style local builds. Let's set the record straight.
Fact: cabal new-build doesn't handle non-Haskell dependencies
OK, so this is one thing that hasn't changed since Ivan's article. Unlike Stack, cabal new-build will not handle downloading and installing GHC for you, and like Stack, it won't download and install system libraries or compiler toolchains: you have to do that yourself. This is definitely a case where you should lean on your system package manager to bootstrap a working installation of Cabal and GHC.
Fact: The Cabal file format can record non-Haskell pkg-config dependencies
Since 2007, the Cabal file format has a pkgconfig-depends field which can be used to specify dependencies on libraries understood by the pkg-config tool. It won't install the non-Haskell dependency for you, but it can let you know early on if a library is not available.
In fact, cabal-install's dependency solver knows about the pkgconfig-depends field, and will pick versions and set flags so that we don't end up with a package with an unsatisfiable pkg-config dependency.
Fact: cabal new-build 2.0 handles build-tools dependencies
As of writing, this feature is unreleased (if you are impatient, get a copy of HEAD from the GitHub repository or install cabal-install-head from hvr's PPA). However, in cabal-install 2.0, build-tools dependencies will be transparently built and added to your PATH. Thus, if you want to install a package which has build-tools: happy, cabal new-build will automatically install happy and add it to the PATH when building this package. These executables are tracked by new-build and we will avoid rebuilding the executable if it is already present.
Since build-tools identify executable names, not packages, there is a set of hardcoded build-tools which are treated in this way, coinciding with the set of build-tools that simple Setup scripts know how to use natively. They are hscolour, haddock, happy, alex, hsc2hs, c2hs, cpphs and greencard.
Fact: cabal new-build can upgrade packages without breaking your database
Suppose you are working on some project which depends on a few dependencies. You decide to upgrade one of your dependencies by relaxing a version constraint in your project configuration. After making this change, all it takes is a cabal new-build to rebuild the relevant dependency and start using it. That's it! Even better, if you had an old project using the old dependency, well, it still is working, just as you would hope.
What is actually going on is that cabal new-build doesn't do anything like a traditional upgrade. Packages installed to cabal new-build's global store are uniquely identified by a Nix-style identifier which captures all of the information that may have affected the build, including the specific versions that were built against. Thus, a package "upgrade" actually is just the installation of a package under a different unique identifier which can coexist with the old one. You will never end up with a broken package database because you typed new-build.
There is not presently a mechanism for removing packages besides deleting your store (.cabal/store), but it is worth noting that deleting your store is a completely safe operation: cabal new-build won't decide that it wants to build your package differently if the store doesn't exist; the store is purely a cache and does not influence the dependency solving process.
Fact: If you can, use your system package manager
cabal new-build is great, but it's not for everyone. If you just need a working pandoc binary on your system and you don't care about having the latest and greatest, you should download and install it via your operating system's package manager. Distro packages are great for binaries; they're less good for libraries, which are often too old for developers (though it is often the easiest way to get a working install of OpenGL). cabal new-build is oriented at developers of Haskell packages, who need to build and depend on packages which are not distributed by the operating system.
I hope this post clears up some misconceptions!