Where do I get started with microcontrollers?

I would like to start using microcontrollers. I was wondering if there was a cheap starter pack, maybe something that can run Linux software, or come with free software, etc. so I don't have to pay $85 for one chip that can hold 20 lines of code and a CD full of crappy coding software. My budget is about $ 20 + shipping and handling. Also, can I connect a microcontroller to my computer and have it do things on my computer, such as send e-mail, etc.? Thanks!

I recommend the Picaxe brand of microcontrollers manufactured by revolution education. They have a very low learning curve compared to other microcontrollers, like AVR and PIC.

Purchase a couple picaxe microcontrollers from Sparkfun. http://www.sparkfun.com/commerce/categories.php?c=124 Greater chip size mostly means greater space for loaded programs.

You will need a download cable to load programs you write onto the microcontroller. If your computer has a serial port, purchase a 2 dollar serial cable and convert it into a download cable using information from the manual (see below). If your computer doesn't have a serial port, you will probably have to purchase one of picaxe's USB cables (~$30, but worth it).

Refer to the manual (1 of 3) for Picaxe microcontrollers for some great beginner tutorials. http://www.rev-ed.co.uk/docs/picaxe_manual1.pdf