If you can spare 15-20 GB hard drive space, you may want to consider the free Wubi installer. This sets up a Ubuntu Linux virtual machine (computer) in a single file within Windows. Of course you need a really great Internet connection because Wubi streams in the 300+ MB of installation software via the Internet.
I use a simpler setup that only requires two downloads. For the virtual machine, consider Sun’s VirtualBox; especially the unofficial Portable VirtualBox 2.1.0. Doing so helps avoid the network driver corruption issues I encountered when I first installed VirtualBox and lost my broadband connection!
Download #2 would be of a Linux version. If you have never used Linux before start small. Literally with the 50 MB Damn Small Linux Live distro (distribution). You don’t even have to burn the ISO file to a CD-R as VirtualBox can read bootable ISOs.
My company uses various Linux flavors for our servers and desktops. The distro and version depends when it was setup. As a rule Linux systems go on forever without frequent human house cleaning like Windows.
An excellent desktop Linux for Windows users is Ubuntu but out-of-the-box it’s missing development tools. Fedora 10 is a good choice if you plan to operate both server and workstation modes. And would like to run a development system complete with content versioning and a test site. Installing these software in Ubuntu is about as difficult as installing them on Windows.
Incidentally if the core Windows systems has at least 1 GB RAM installed, the Linux virtual distros will work fine in a 384-512 MB RAM and 8 GB hard disk virtual environment.
I have also managed to lay my hands on a copy of Windows 7 Beta. I’m looking forward to sharing my impressions with you soon.