Join Date: Jan 2006
Bikes: '08 Bianchi C2C Alum/Carbon Ultegra/105 Mix, '06 Santa Cruz Chameleon
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Yes, for an entry level HT MTB, your looking at the $500 range. So your on track.
All the frames will be similar, so it all comes down to component level.
Giant and Trek are the most bang for the buck.
Marin and Specialized are fine too.
Ironhorse and Mavericks are lower on the list of quality components IMO.
So my advice, since you asked, is to go talk to a couple of your LBS's and get some prices and ride a few.
Get a good fit so you purchase the right size frame.
Now's a good time to buy as they are willing to deal on the '07 models with the '08's coming in stock.
Good Luck and let us know what you ended up buying.