Getting from point A to B (the right way)
My answer to Getting from point A to B (the right way) on Ask MetaFilter
If your laptop is relatively recent it might have hardware support for virtualization (Intel Core Duo chips do, for example). If so, it’s worth looking in to using VMWare or Parallels to run a virtual linux server locally on your machine. You’ll need a fair amount of RAM for this as well—2 GB minimum probably.
I do this and it’s fantastic as a development tool. I’ve got an Ubuntu virtual server which means I can install pretty much anything I want to with an apt-get—then I mount it to my “real” laptop over Samba so I can edit files with a local text editor. Best of both worlds.
I can’t recommend using source control enough—it’s not that tricky to get started with and it means you’ll never be afraid of changing code again (since you can always roll back). I’d go for Subversion—newer systems are more trendy, but for a single person getting started with version control subversion will probably be easiest to pick up. This book should help: http://www.pragprog.com/titles/svn2