This is the year I kiss Windows good-bye. Well, maybe not entirely, but the writing is on the wall for Microsoft's flagship operating system, and all other desktop bloatware: The future of PC software is open source. (I'll add that the future of PC applications is on the Web, which I'll cover once we've got Ubuntu in place.)
Being the belts-and-suspenders type, I'll make the conversion from proprietary to open in baby steps, the first of which is to get a copy of Ubuntu 7.1 (a.k.a. Gutsy Gibbon), the version of Linux from Canonical Ltd. that has a reputation for being complete, well supported, and easy to use. I know the OS only by reputation, however. Wikipedia provides a comprehensive comparison of Linux versions.
There are three ways to get an Ubuntu installation CD: Download the distro and burn it to a CD, buy a copy at Amazon ($13 plus shipping), or request a free CD by mail (allow six to 10 weeks for delivery).
If you go the download route, be patient: The program is 700MB, so even over a broadband link it will take some time to complete. The download is an ISO file required to make an installation CD. Look for an option in your CD-burning application called "Burn from Disk Image" or something similar.
If you use Windows XP, you may need to download Alex Feinman's ISO Recorder utility. The program is free, but the author requests donations. Insert a blank CD in the drive. ISO Recorder should open the CD Recording wizard automatically when the download completes, but if it doesn't, right-click the ISO file you just downloaded and choose Copy Image to CD. Click Next, and complete the recording.
With your Ubuntu installation CD in hand, you're ready to take the OS for a test drive.
Tomorrow: Run Ubuntu from the CD, or create a drive partition for dual-booting the OS with Windows.