You should probably take a look at the ranked list on Distrowatch.com (right hand column), and try some of the ones listed under the top 20 or 25 distros. Most have a live cd version, either a full version or evaluation cd. From reading forums and mailing lists, Ubuntu, Mandriva, Mepis, PCLinuxOS and Knoppix seem to be the most popular among those just starting. I'm partial to Knoppix, but that may be because it's what I started with and it's more familiar.
You won't really get to tinker much with a live cd, although you will get to try out a lot of software. To tinker, you'll need to install a distro and just start working with it.
If you really, really want to tinker, and aren't afraid to dive into the deep end, Slackware and Gentoo are great. They require more work, but you'll learn a whole lot more than with some of the friendlier distros.
18 months is a very long time in driver and kernel development. Try again with a current release, and it's likely that your hardware can be detected automatically now. And try some different distros, as they each have slight differences in hardware detection.