Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: The Natural State
Bikes: 2006 21" Rockhopper
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I also come from a BMX background. One thing I can tell you for sure is that if your mountain bike rides like a BMX bike, it'll really only be good for the same stuff as your BMX bike. It won't be comfortable for long trail rides, and won't climb very well either. Don't let the "image" of the dirtjump bikes draw you in. If you want to dirtjump, get one, but that and park/urban riding is about all they're really good for.
Freeride bikes are not cheap and almost never hardtails. If you find a freeride bike (a real one) that is a hardtail, it's just about certain that it won't be cheap.
To be honest, you should check out the stickies on the $500 bikes and search the forums for newbie/beginner bikes. These threads hold a wealth of information about what bikes are available at the entry level of cost.
But really, as long as you stick with a major manufacturer and try before you buy any hardtail in your price range will be a good bike that you can ride until you break something, and upgrade from there.