A good place to start is the OSGeo-Live 5.0 DVD. This is a bootable DVD that takes you straight into a prepared system containing many open source GIS software projects already set up for you so that you can try them all out and determine which ones are useful for your particular project. You can download it from the OSGeo site at: http://live.osgeo.org then copy the iso to DVD or USB depending on what you prefer to boot from.
Comparing open source and proprietary software depends on what you are trying to achieve. I like the freedom that open source gives you just to download, explore and use. They generally rely on open standards so different packages can be made to work together. There is no proprietary lock-in and no danger of the licence running out at awkward times and having to jump through all sorts of hoops to renew the licence. I find the software generally mature enough these days for serious use, especially for a university project if that is what you are using it for.