As another nEWb,
I would say on your laptop that one of the flavors of Ubuntu would work. There is an article about Xbuntu which uses the xfce (I think ) desktop which is lighter than Gnome. There is also a light weight version of Ubuntu and Kbuntu, which uses the KDE desktop. I would say get three or 4 "liveCD's" and try them if you have enough ram there may be an option to load to ram, Curiously enough, I'm running the Linux From Scratch livecd and I like it , I'm sure that it's not fully featured but it does everything I need to do running out of ram. Knoppix was the first liveCD I think so I wouldn't leave that out and crunchbang linux sounds like it's worth a look as well.
I have Ubuntu on my main machine and run virtualbox with many version of windows os installed as I still have to provide support for my windows user friends. I've had no issues to this point with Ubuntu, however I don't like the default setup as far as looks it's brown and drab.... but if that's the worst thing I can say then that's really nothing worth noting. Good Luck