My new wheels!
The Norco Nitro 9.3.
Growing up, Norco was synonymous with "cheap department store bike". No longer. Norco makes some amazing bikes, both for on and off road.
This is slightly above an entry-level bike. It has air shocks and hydraulic disk brakes, rather than coil and mechanical, which is definitely worth the extra few hundred bucks. Everything is SRAM X5, also a step up (but a less significant one).
Nothing is Finer than a 29'er
This is a 29'er hardtail. I have been riding a 26'er for the last few years.
Everyone has an opinion on 26-vs-29'er, and I certainly won't claim this is the right way to go for everyone. But at 6 feet tall and doing the kind of riding I do, this is the right choice.
I instantly noticed just how much easier the bike rolled over just about everything. Roots that used to chatter my brain were barely noticeable. One of the 26'er crowd's complaints about 29'ers is they don't have the same trail feel - this is almost certainly true. I felt like the bike was dealing with everything for me!
The larger wheels do have some disadvantages - when I had to take very tight turns, I felt like I really had to muscle the front wheel to get it pointed where I wanted to go. This was rarely an issue, I mostly did singletrack with lots of tight turns, and there were maybe a couple of times where it was noticeable.
SRAM vs Shimano
This is my first bike with SRAM shifters.
It may not seem like a big deal, but their lever layout is different.
With Shimano, you click with your thumb toward the front of the bike to shift to a larger sprocket, and then pull with your finger from the other side to shift to a smaller one.
With SRAM, the shift to the larger sprocket is the same, but the smaller one is a separate lever just below it that you again use your thumb for. This took a bit of getting used to, but within 15 minutes I had it down.
The side effect is that it is easier to feather the brake while shifting, if you ever need to, as you don't need to use your fingers to get to the shifter. With mountain biking, you never know when you have to grab that brake unexpectedly, nice to have your hand on it all the time.
For the price I paid (about $1000, 2012 purchased in 2013) this is a heck of a lot of bike! Great value (about $300 off retail).
The only downside is the weight - it's a pretty heavy bike. 20" frame, 29-er, everything just is bigger and the weight is the penalty. It's comparable with the other bikes in this range (ie. the Trek Cobia). I would have to spend a heck of a lot more to rectify that, though, and I am not really willing to do that for what I need it for.
Very happy with my purchase!