My nephew received a Squier Affinity Strat for Christmas a few years ago. It looks like a Fender Stratocaster, and has all the feautires of one: 6 inline tuners, contoured body, three single coil pickups, 5 way switch, and a 6 point vibrato. But is this really a Strat?
The guitar played reasonably well out of the box. It needed a bit of tweaking of the intonation and the string height, but every guitar does. The frets were decently dressed with no sharp ends, or buzzing. The sounds was a bit shrill, but given the fact that the pickups do not have seperate magnetized poles, but are iron poles with a ceramic bar magnet underneath, that was understandable. The major difference I found was that the body was thinner than a stock Fender Stratocaster. All in all, the guitar played rather well, and considering the $179 price tag, it was rather impressive.
But it could be improved, and for very little cash.
About a month ago, he and I replaced the tuners with GFS gotoh style tuners, and replaced the pickups and electronics with a GFS pre-wired pickguard. This made the swap a breeze, as only the bridge ground wire and the jack wires needed top be soldered. The change in tone was truly noticable, and he is very happy with the guitar. Soon we will also replace the stock vibrato (Fender called them Tremelos in error) with a GFS replacement that has a full steel block, and that should help more with tone, as well as increase the sustain .
For someone starting out, the Affinity Squier Strat is a great way to go. They are still available for $179.00 at many major guitar retailers. If you are really ¢heap like me, check Craigslist. I have seen some go for as little as $50, although $75-$125 is more common.