...I'd like to get the opinion of you phpBB gurus out there
I don't put myself in the guru category (you'll get answers from them as well), but I can give my novice response:
I came from a background of cgi, html. Very little php or mysql. Doing my research here and testing on a test site gave me more information that I could get reading books. I had my test site running on RC1 about a month prior to moving RC2 to a live site. Now that FINAL is release, it's an easy transition.
If you have the basics of html ... use a host that gives you the ability to create your dbs (mysql recommended) on a *nix server, you should be on your way. I have found php to be logical and LITE.
The support on this forum is fantastic. They now have a dedicated Support group (the Bear
is in charge) that helps folks like you and me.
I would get away from the free hosts ... you get what you are paying for. Garbage. I have seen hosts that are as little as $5.00 month with php, mysql, apache, Linux .. blah, blah, blah.
So, as far as ease of use. Too easy... it's almost scary. My learning point was the over 150 installs/upgrades/updates that I've done with phpBB since the RC1 days (on test sites). I'm not kidding here either. But know what? It was fun. I blow up my test site with so many silly mods that I actually enjoy it.
I translate all what I learn on my test site to my live site. If I get it to run "perfect"
on test, then it goes on my live.
G'Luck, you'll enjoy it here!