We all need to find what we want.
I started with Ubuntu. Don't even recommend it anymore. They are getting a bit strange in the way they do business.
Xfce is what I use. Under Mint it would be pretty much the same as Xubuntu. This is all right but does not show Xfce as the Xfce folks put it out. If you check you will find that it is infested with a lot of Gnome "improvements" that actually make Xfce hard to configure.
Most of the serious distros that have been based on Ubuntu have switched to some other base, generally Debian due to built in restrictions on configuration of the system. CrunchBang is a good example of this.
Manjaro is a very nice distro, based on Arch, and they have a very nice default OB layout.
You will be able to do more with Gnome on just about any distro other than Ubuntu. Unity was intended to be an extension for Gnome Shell. The Gnome project would not include it with the copyright for a default extension for their project to be under a different outfit (Canonical). Ubuntu took their dolls and stomped off home and developed Unity as a stand alone. It may well be better than it would have been if an extension of Gnome Shell but the upshot is that they do not make the integration of Gnome usage under Ubuntu a priority at all.
You may want to try Fedora with Gnome. Most of the early extensions for Gnome Shell were developed there or by Fedora users. Debian Stable (Wheezy) uses Gnome by default.
You should keep in mind that some hardware really does require non-free firmware or drivers as defined by the Free Software Foundation. Some of these are included in the Linux kernel (firmware). It is open source, it has some copyright or other license clauses that doesn't pass FSF standards. Many distros try to follow those standards as closely as they can. Debian strips those firmware components from the kernel they deliver by default, like several other distros, but make them available in repos (non-free and contrib).
This means that the default install of some distros may not run correctly on your hardware OTB.
There is, in the case of Debian, a Live CD that is put out by the same folks that put out the Official Live media but is not Official at all that does include all of that sort of thing.
Any distro that lacks some of these packages will be slightly harder to install but the packages are available for any Linux distro in one way or another.
More and more distros no longer need such packages anyway as the FOSS firmware and drivers are much more compatible with hardware all the time. My old box needed the non-free firmware for Debian Squeeze (Debian 6) but not for Wheezy (Debian 7).
I am a Debian user so know much more about it than other distros. Please don't take this a a sales pitch for Debian. I like it, I use it. I normally have several installs and many are not even in the Debian family (APT using distros are all Debian based).
I do recommend using distros that are at the base of GNU/Linux "branches" because they aren't reconfigured by someone else adding a layer of complexity to your configuring them to exactly what you want. That said, respins are nice simply because they are configured by some one else so you don't need to if you like the way it is done.
You can learn a lot about configuring a DE new to you by looking at the config files in respins. I learned a lot about OB configuration from Manjaro. As a Xfce user OB is not real familiar to me and I appreciated the chance to look at what they had done. They do nice work.
The difference that matters in the different "branches" is package management. I do recommend finding the one you like the best and sticking to it for long enough to become proficient with it. Once you do that the others are easy to pick up because while they are very different in commands used they all do the exact same things. They have to install the binary packages in the correct places in the file system.
Most have gui applications to do this very simply for the user. One of the main strengths of GNU/Linux is, however, a robust cli. All package management systems screw up. Think of the many Window updates that have broken Windows installs on thousands of Windows machines.
With the GNU/Linux cli it is almost never needed to reinstall. Instead you can fix the problem even if you can't boot to the desktop.
This is the reason that MS has been redesigning their inadiquate cli for some time now.
Learning to use the package manager in cli is well worth the effort and you will find that it is faster in most cases. It is the primary tool for system repair in most cases so it is well worth getting comfortable with.
Having started using computers with MSDos this was not hard for me to understand. The degrading of the cli by MS was a major factor in my abandoning Windows for GNU/Linux.