First, I tried installing from a live CD I had made. This was an utter failure. Not until many hours later did I realize that while the install CD burned perfectly, the CD/DVD drive on the old laptop is no longer working. Yeah, that could be a bit of a problem, couldn't it? I remember I had been having some problems with the drive, but that it was still working some of the time. (Thanks to lackofcontext for her help.)
Second, I tried doing a WUBI. I had read online that that tended to be buggy. Boy, they weren't wrong. I got the WUBI to run, however on reboot the installation would not complete. I would get an error message saying that the username was invalid, without ever having been prompted for a username. I was able to find some forum support for this issue, but it was for a much earlier release and I couldn't access the file I was supposed to edit in order to fix it (assuming I read the directions correctly).
At this point, I see a few options. In order of the amount of effort I think I'd need to expend, from least to most, here they are.
1) Decide it's not meant to be. Keep old box running on Windows XP until I replace it with a netbook (my eventual plan was to use that as a docking station, but as I was posting, having two computer is incredibly useful).
2) Retry WUBI, probably on the version that the fix was posted for (7.04 or some such) and then upgrade it.
3) When I get my spare USB key back from the person who has it, use that to load Ubuntu and attempt to boot from the USB. (Apparently, I'm not the only person with this problem.)
4) Get a cheap external CD drive (possibly borrowing it from someone - mrpet? cystennin
Am I missing anything? Will one or more of these be more likely to work than others? Other options I should consider?
It was fun trying out the live CD on my new laptop (at this point a year and a half old, with a year and a half of warranty left to run). I can see why people like Ubuntu - it's clean and easy to use even if you don't know much about what you're doing, and the included open-source software seems good too.