So basically my only advice thus far has been, decide what your needs are (now and future) and get the best machine you can afford. If you don't need all the bells and whistles, don't get them. But I'd really love to be able to point folks to something a lot more concrete than that. This is the part where I'd love your help.
If you have a great machine or have read any posts about finding the perfect beginning machine and you'd like to share that info, please leave it in the comments. Then I'll be able to sleep at night at least knowing that folks are finding some answers instead of the virtual blank stare they get from me on this topic.