Rhd, I ordered a red apc diode and module with built in driver board from lasers4u for a first build. Should be small enough and low enough power to get the gist of things as far as working within a small host and fiddling with stuff. I hope so anyway.
Note: spelling errors are all my iPhones fault. Hehe
Good call - though half the challenge you'll want to learn to deal with (eventually) is mounting the diode in a housing, and connecting a driver.
That's why I think the LPC-826 would be a good starting point for you. Only about $12, and it comes as a new diode (don't have to harvest it from a sled, etc). Reasonable power needs that you can supply with a ton of different driver options, and it's fairly durable. Plus it's new and trendy