In case you're not familiar with it, Linux is a computer operating system, just like Windows and Mac OS X. But Linux is open-source, meaning no single company owns it, and you can use it free of charge.
Linux also tends to have much lower hardware requirements than Windows, meaning it can run smoothly and speedily on older machines.
There are lots of Linux variants floating around the Web, each a little different in the features it offers and interface it employs.
My pick: Zorin OS. It's the first Linux version I've seen that makes a concerted effort to mimic Windows 7—and it does a darn good job of it.
To wit, you'll see a familiar selection of icons across the desktop, and a familiar toolbar along the bottom, and a familiar-looking "start" button in the lower-left corner of the screen. Click that button and you'll see a pop-up menu that's almost a dead ringer for Windows 7's.
In other words, Zorin OS eases the transition from Windows to Linux by making the latter look and feel more like the former. That gives it a definite edge over most of the other Linux variants I've tried, all of which hit you with a steeper interface learning curve.
The OS also comes with a wealth of pre-installed software: an office suite, a music manager, a media player, an image editor, and lots more—everything most users need.
Okay, but what if there's an important program that's only available for Windows? Zorin comes with WINE, an emulator that allows many—if not most—Windows apps to run within Linux. In my case, that means I can continue to use iTunes and SugarSync—two programs I'd be hard-pressed to give up.
Enough with the hard sell. What you should do is test-drive Zorin for yourself, which you can do even before wiping your laptop's hard drive. By loading the OS onto a USB flash drive and then booting your PC from that drive, you can run Zorin in all its glory—without it making a single change to your existing setup.
Don't know how to create a bootable flash drive? There's a killer utility that makes it easy. Check out my post, "Create a Bootable Linux Flash Drive in Three Easy Steps."
If you decide you like Zorin, great—just boot from that flash drive again and choose the "install" option. When the process is complete, you should find yourself with a fast, familiar, malware-free laptop that's ideal for e-mail, Web browsing, word processing, and all the other computing basics. Heck, you might decide you don't even need a new laptop, now that your old one is working so well.
Your only cost: a little of your time.