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My favorite is Debian, but not for someone new to linux. I always suggest Pardus, Mepis, and Mint (live CDs) for users interested in learning Debian. If the live CDs configure everything, then install. For slower machines (ie. the above distros were too slow for you), then Mepis Antix for a Debian system, and one of my all-time favorites, Zenwalk which is a slackware derivative. Plus, Zenwalk will introduce you to getting use to a Slackware system. All of these distros are very stable, and 'automagically' configure just about everything or have a GUI application to steer you in the right direction with very little command line interaction. With Mepis, always perform an update as soon as you are connected online (there always seems to be a few bugs when the distro is released, and they never release a fixed version, but the updates come from the Mepis repository by default, and there should be a synaptic update button in the panel as soon as you are online).
Distribution: Ubuntu Intrepid and Meerkat, formerly used Debian 3.1 (Sarge) with Gnome Desktop
The problems you described with Hardy Heron are probably not that difficult to solve. I think you should perhaps perservere with Hardy Heron.
I myslef just installed Hardy Heron for the first time and was mighty impressed. It even recognised my DVB-T card first go. I installed the NVIDIA drivers for my Geforce4 MX320 card and even the TV out just about worked (just need to get it to switch away from NTSC to PAL).
Can you give some definitive examples of the directory and permissions problems you are having?
I have only come across one permissions issue at present (Google Earth will not run successfully without running it with sudo).
Based on the problems you're having (unrecognized commanded, etc.) I'm not too sure it's the distro you're using, rather than you. Don't be offended, all new Linuxers go through the pains of convergence.
There are plenty of command references on the web, and in the stores to help you get started.
Also, I'm running Fedora 8 on a 1GHz laptop with 384MB RAM and a 20G hard drive. No complaints here.