After much research, I decided to follow BDL's "whetstone used dry" route. I received my Norton India combo stone and quickly put an old, crap grocery store knife to it. I boiled the stone in detergent water to jump start the "de-oiling" process first. 15-20 minutes of playing with technique, etc., a light steeling plus stropping on an old cardboard box and the crap chef's knife (probably 420 stainless) was sharp enough to shave hair. An old green pepper dropped from a foot or two onto the blade cleaved in half cleanly. Since I learned years ago on old, oiled up natural stones, this dry Norton India stone is a bit of a revelation.
I was planning on ordering a Hall's Soft Ark and then Black Ark as my skills progressed, but some intriguing info popped up. Remembering the crock sticks on my old Spyderco Sharpmaker, I Googled and found they now make 8x2 ceramic bench stones.
According to http://nihonzashi.com/SharpenGuide.htm#Grit , the Spyderco Medium is equal to a 1000 grit water stone and Soft Ark, the Spyderco Fine is equal to 2500 grit water stone and a bit finer than a black Ark and the Spyderco Ultrafine is supposedly equal to a 4000 grit water stone. The medium and fine ceramic stones can be had for $37 a piece (cheaper as a pair than a Halls Soft Ark and Surgical Black). The Extra/Ultrafine ceramic is around $70
The ceramics seem attractive because they're actually designed to be used dry and their aluminum oxide ceramic construction *should* make them cut harder steels better than a natural stone (I'm going out on a limb). Plus, I was pleased with the crock sticks in my Sharpmaker, even if they were slow as dirt on a rough blade.
I know that how natural stones are rated is highly subjective, varying from one source/mine to another. I'm quite interested how these ceramics might stack up against good natural stones in terms of cutting speed, feedback, polish, lifetime, etc. I'm willing to trade slower speed (compared to water stones) for better longevity and ease of use as long as it's not ridiculous. I admit there's also a bit of romance in putting one's steel to a rock that came from the earth, but in the end, I want the best tool for the money.
Any thoughts you can contribute would be greatly appreciated.