Thanks so much for all the information everyone. Just thought I'd let anyone who might've been curious know that I ended up going with the brother6000i as my first machine.
1) It was less than $200, which is really cheap for what you get. I figured since I'm teaching myself, I rather bust a $170 machine than a thousand dollar one.
2) It has a start/stop button & a speed control lever right on the front, forget the pedal. Score.
3) It does 50+ stitches & a rack of buttonholes. More than I know what to do with really.
Overall, great beginner machine. Mine'll truck on through 6 layers of fleece & some batting with little complaint (There are definitely better ways to do that.. hah, oops). Depending on it's mood it'll do some thicker stuff but I don't want to hurt it as its been so nice to me so far.
One day I'll lay down the $ for a more advanced machine but this is all I'll need for a little while.
Thanks again everyone! When I'm in the market for another one I'm printing your suggestions and going on a hunt for the best. Like I said though, so far so good.