Just to record a new user's experience (coming from windows):
I put Mint on a USB key (following http://www.pendrivelinux.com/usb-linux-mint-7-flash-drive-creation-windows/
). I then experimented with this system until I could prove my absolute essentials would work. This was fairly easy and quicker than I expected.
However, I had assumed I could just install this tweaked system directly onto my hard disk. No such luck - when I clicked the install thing, I got a very broken system. None of my 'user data' type stuff was included and the Nvidia drivers were thoroughly broken. It would be nice if I had got the same system as was on my USB key.
I had to do a fresh install off CD to solve the trouble.
On another note, I have been reading some talk of not including non-free stuff in the distro by default. This would be a bad move. I chose Mint precisely because it would work out of the box (and it looked pretty). My other options where pclinuxos and mepis (pclinuxos was ugly and mepis was not based on ubuntu).