Getting started with with a micro

I'm looking to get a microcontroller that I can plug other devices into, and
control them from a PC or through on-board switches.
At the moment, I want:
* to decode IR signals and transfer them to my PC
to connect an IR transmitter to it which will receive signals from my PC
* to connect a humidity/temperature sensor to it (to be polled by a PC)
* to connect an LCD (hopefully something better than a 16x2 screen - maybe
something colour?)
to drive some status LEDs (will probably need extra components for this)
* to have some operational LEDs to display diagnostic info from the PC
Hopefully what I need is a bit clearer now. I want a micro (preferably with
a board) that will control and manage I/O to/from special devices (IR RX/TX,
temp sensors, LEDs etc.) from a PC.
Now, here is where I am not sure exactly what I'd like. Initially, I thought
that having all this done through a serial port and writing specialised
software was the way to go. However, I'm reluctant to use the serial port
because it is fast disappearing from PCs and I do not want with USB-serial
convertors in the future.
So, the choices at the moment are USB and Ethernet. I'm even sceptical about
USB because of USB 1.1/2.0 speed issues. Ethernet looks like a winner. I'm
in a switched environment so I don't care if the device hogs its own segment
as long as it doesn't affect performance for other hosts on the switch.
Any comments/suggestions welcome. The whole Ethernet idea is quite new to
me, actually.
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