Most of us still do a full fishless cycle as the claims made about biological additives have not been fully proven. They may have a place in cases where someone added fish whilst unaware of the need to cycle, but it is still considered safer for fish for the tank to be fishless cycled before they arrive. A guide to fishless cycling is available here: http://www.fishkeeping.co.uk/articles ... hless-cycling-article.htm Testing the water before any fish are in the tank is a pointless exercise as with no ammonia source present, all you have is a tank full of tap water.
Acceptable parameters once fish are in the tank are: ammonia = 0, nitrite = 0, nitrate = no more than 20 ppm above the level in your supply. Hardness and pH need to be suited to the fish you want to keep, so in reality, it's best to choose fish that suit the water you have in your taps. You'll need to test the pH of a sample of water that's been left to stand for a day or two and will need a gH and kH test kit in addition to the master test kit to test hardness. This site is very good for finding out which fish species' are going to thrive in your water: http://seriouslyfish.com/knowledge-base/
Play sand is a good choice and inexpensive, but does still need a lot of washing to prevent it clouding the water. Another option is pool filter sand which has a coarser grain and is ready to use with no washing needed.