After all my research, I realized I should go for something that's just-above-entry-level (JAEL) and then decide on how different models felt in that class. I visited REI yesterday and tried their JAEL model which felt fine, but it really didn't have a good cool design to it. Specifically, the color scheme consisted of a puke/forest (are they the same?) with some dark gray along the frame. It wasn't too attractive. Then I rode the 4300 which seemed to have the same ride, but thanks to its brand name, I just felt more confident on it. Plus, the color scheme was sweet. I'm glad I took the REI intro to bike maintenance class so I'm no longer intimidated by all the gears and wires.
Also, I was told on good authority that paying a little more now is much better than paying a lot more later, up to a point that is. I could have bought a Trek 4300 with disc brakes, but the additional $100 wouldn't have been worth it for the riding I would do, just as any higher level bike more than JAEL would have a better suspension, but nothing that I'd recognize. One last thing, if you visit that mountain bike review site, those people use the JAEL bikes for far more than they're ever designed to withstand, which is why their forks would break, etc. If you take care of your bike by cleaning the chain after each ride, it'll be just fine for years.