When you are shopping for a guitar a few things that you want to look for are
1.Action- This is probably the single most important factor .The action would be the distance between the string and the fret.How far the string has to travel before it contacts the fret. You want it to be as low as possible with out getting any fret buzz.This makes the guitar much easier to play.
What ever way you go is up to you I would like to say that I played a cheap guitar with a laminated top for about all of my playing years.That would be 17 years in total.I only recently invested in a high dollar guitar.I payed $150 for my cheap guitar and in my opinion it sounds better then some other guitars that my playing buddies use that cost them 3 to 4 hundred.Keep that in mind while you are looking.High price does not always point to a quality instrument.
Here is how to tell if a top is solid or laminated.It is quite simple.
Look at the edge of the wood as it goes into the sound hole.If it is solid the grain of the wood will seem to rap around the edge and go into the guitar.A laminated top will not do this at all..
I will try to get some pictures together of solid and laminated tops.
Here is the list of name brands .The list is in no way inclusive.If you feel I left A name of let me know.All of these have good guitars that are affordable.
epiphone(division of gibson)
That's all I can come up with .If you want to do a little price research on guitars check out my simon.When I use them I usually get about 20 guitar shops that have what I am looking for it will give you an idea on pricing.You must shop around or you will probably pay to much.A guitar that sells for 300 at one place can be as little as 170 at another shop.No kidding it is that dramatic.The banner below will take you to the section of my simon.com that is for comparison shopping of guitars.