Join Date: Jan 2008
Bikes: old Mongoose, very abused on trails, getting a new bike summer '08
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One of my friends just got a Specialized Hardrock, you might like that bike. Most likely you will get a 'hardtail' bike, that means no shocks in the rear. No disc brakes in your price range most likely, go to a shop and demo different brands.
Different bikes have different feeling shifters, try them out in the parking lots. You should feel at ease with handlebar reach and bike height, lift up the bike too, if it's really heavy, think to yourself "can I ride this uphill?", the techs will figure out what size frame and seat height you need.
If you're not a regular biker opt for regular pedals first, clip-ins can be stressfull for a beginner, also if you decide you do want clip pedals, make sure they are adjusted to the most loose setting so you can pop out easily. Those are pretty much the basics, have fun with the demos.