In my personal and professional experience, it is best to start with a older machine first. Stick with a machine with standard interfaces and peripherals. Integrated LAN, sound, and graphics chips, etc. significantly reduce the likelihood you will have installation problems. Linux support for ATI graphics cards, especially newer cards, has historically not been very good, but I haven't tried an ATI chip based video card in quite a while. NVidia releases Linux drivers for the most part at the same time has Windows drivers, but if what ever Linux distro you pick has trouble detecting your card, you may have to download and install the NVidia drivers (and kernel headers, libraries, etc.) yourself.
Most distos come with all the basic apps you will need (mail client, browser, open office, MP3 players, video players, picture editing applications, etc.) . Some distros install easier on some hardware than others. It all really comes down to support. Do you want paid support from Red Hat, etc. or would you rather try something like Debian and use community support for issues. Many years (>7) ago when I was starting out, I thought that a packaged distro like Red Hat was the way to go, but found I still had a lot of trouble and gave up. More recently (<2) I got back into Linux to expand my experience at work, which are Debian based. While Linux distros have significantly improved over the years, my more recent experience has only reinforced my opinion that it is easier to stick with slightly older hardware with more well deployed interfaces and peripherals.
The few areas I have had the most trouble aside from non-standard graphics cards, are video codecs, browser plugins, and wireless LAN, none of which are critical functions for me.
In short, stick slightly older hardware with standard interfaces and peripherals. This is precisely where Linux excels. Linux runs very well on older hardware. Something Bill Gates cannot claim.
Hope this helps.
Last edited by ElvisImprsntr; 09-14-2007 at 06:54 AM.