It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem. You need to practice hands-on skills related to a Cisco exam – but you don’t know what gear to buy or software to use when you start. And you’re going to need the gear before you really have enough knowledge and skill to make good choices about the right hardware and software.
This site provides some useful reference information about this important choice. Use it when thinking through the choices. Also look at the resources on the bottom right of this page for places to discuss these options!
Also, please help me keep this up-to-date and accurate! email any discrepancies to firstname.lastname@example.org.