Sewing machines are such a tricky thing to advise on. Getting a cheaper machine will not be the nicest sewing experience and may put you off. But then getting a more costly machine when you are new to all this and don't know how much you are going to use it is also hard!
Firstly don't fall into the trap of buying an all singing all dancing machine, or indeed add-ons and offers. You simply won't use all the functions so it is a waste of money. And as far as I can see there is little difference between a garment making machine and a quilting one (apart from maybe a different foot or two added to the package) so don't let that sway you either - marketing strategies!
Here's what I think you need:
1. Well designed feet that are easy to change and offer good visibility at the needle point. This is crucial.
2. A needle down function where your needle can be programmed to stop down in the work at the end of a line of stitching.
3. A front loading rather than top loading bobbin. Easier to adjust your bottom tension and also the bobbin thread unwinds with the assistance of gravity so helps give a more consistent tension (and less looping in some free-motion quilting designs).
4. Availability of a straight stitch plate and ease of changing the stitch plates.
5. Good machine lighting.
6. A hands free presser foot knee lift system - to lift and lower the presser foot. Takes some getting used to but I cannot get the results I need/want without this.
7. A straight, flat and not curved sewing machine bed so that you can support the work and your hands on a flat surface - and so you can easily add an additional perspex table surround (or indeed drop into a table such as a Sewezi). It's also important that you have a flat area of machine bed to the left of the needle so your left hand and work has somewhere to rest and be supported. Lots of cheaper machines do not have this and it is a disadvantage.
8. I don't think you need a stitch regulator for free-motion work. They are very expensive and in my opinion jerky. Their aim is to help you achieve consistent length stitches in free-motion work. What does this is lots of practise!
I have always used Bernina machines and, although no machine is absolutely perfect, they offer all of the above and so much more. They are robust and will tackle a huge range of fabrics and projects. But they are expensive - however they will last you years and years.
Do plenty of on-line research and do not rush into this. If stores are open try several brands and do not feel afraid to take fabric into the shop and stitch on the demo models. A good store wants you to do this and make the right choice. Phone them beforehand and agree a time and day to do this so they are expecting you and have the time to give you. Do not immediately purchase but go home and think about it. Ask for the best price too, and see if you can negotiate any feet or extras. I suggest you buy the best you can possibly afford - and then from somewhere find a bit more money to add to that! In the end it is the quality you will appreciate and the cost will be well worth it.
When you buy your machine read the manual from cover to cover. Keep it by the machine and use it. Also google any questions you have - it's all out there for you. Expect it to take you a while to really get to know your machine and how it reacts to your use. It is just a machine and you will get the best from it if you learn as much as you can about it. You will be rewarded by making a careful choice, and years of creative and enjoyable sewing will be the result.
Good luck! Philippa :)