I was in the same situation as you a few months ago and similarly increased my budget to get a little more bike and save myself a little coin in the long run. Just one remark though... $500-800 for your first mountain bike is far from unreasonable. In fact, it's spot on if you aren't sure that you're going to ride much over the long term. The important thing at this stage is to get the BEST-fitting, competively-spec'ed bike within your budget, realizing that you're going to upgrade components as you determine what your preferences and needs are. This includes why you ride, what terrain you like riding on, and what seasons you ride. Think of this as a given.
Now, that being said, I tried out the usual ilk of Fisher, Specialized, Giant, Jamis, etc, 29ers, but ended up getting the Pro version of the Zaskar 9er (front sus) *and* the Peace 9er Multi (rigid). My budget was in the $1-2K neighborhood for one bike and sub-600 for the other. I wish I could give you more in the way of ride characteristics for the Zaskar, but I haven't ridden it too much recently in order to spare it this round of the mid-Atlantic weather and salt. However, I do ride the *hay* out of the Peace and it holds up nicely. We're talking mostly cross-country, i.e., the usual gravel, hard pack, shallow mud, snow, and a few roots thrown in for good measure. No huge drops in my near future. :nono: There is no reason why any of the bikes you've mentioned in your original post(s), including the Zaskar line, wouldn't be adequate or excel in this application. Furthermore, I'd agree with previous assessments from this forum that If you are looking to throw more than a 2.2-2.3 tire on your steed, the Zaskar's rear mud/snow clearance will get tight. The 2.3 Nevegals that came stock on my Zaskar are as "big volume" as I'd go with that frame.
(Not to complicate things, but you might even throw the Access 9.7 29er into consideration since it is comparably spec'ed and priced as the Elite.)
There, I've chucked my two pennies in the pot.
IF YOU GET ANYTHING OUT OF THIS POST THIS IS IT:
If there is one thing that's been rammed into my skull the short time I've been lurking on mtbr, it's that you should get the bike that fits your body and desired riding style best AND test ride anything and everything you can to make that determination. I repeat, get the bike that fits YOU best--do not get too concerned about components, weight savings, brand name, etc... From what I see, there will be plenty of time for that, my friend. Right now, get in shape, get your fundamentals down, be safe, and have F-U-N.
There you go. I usually see the glass as half-full, so let's assume that your local bike shop will come through for you in the above respects and supplement what you find out here on the forum(s).
Oh yeah. Please remember to reserve a little money for bike maintenance items (extra tubes, cleaning supplies, and so on) and a bike helmet, too. Some of those costs can creep up on you if you don't plan ahead. Even more vital, please save a little time every day to revisit this forum.
Good luck, welcome, and do keep us informed!