Well I got Linux Mint standard edition with Gnome 3.2 up and running on the laptop without any significant problems. I have experienced a couple of desktop crashes but it has otherwise been fairly stable.
Considering the crashes you seem to be getting with various Linux distros, has anyone suggested a HW failure with your old laptop? Or are you trying out the very latest, maybe even experimental, Linux distros (e.g. you chose Ubuntu 11.10 instead of the latest LTS release, albeit I guess 11.10 is considered stable)?
Apart from Fedora which in my eyes is beta software, Linuxes have been rock-solid with the various PCs I've tried. Fedora wasn't, back when the Fedora release which I tried (Fedora 12 I believe, ie. a couple of years ago...) was still quite new. That seemed to hang or crash every now and then, but later it got stable... and at that point Fedora's support was nearing its end, and I was supposed to update to next Fedora release, so I gave up on it.
A funny thing happened while playing with Linux over the past couple of days. The geek in me started coming out again and I began to think about how it might be cool to have Linux on my desktop PC. I must be nuts as Windows 7 is working fine and I shouldn't fix what ain't broke but the thought came and went a number of times. I think I will play it safe for now though and do my fooling around on the laptop as I investigate the other distro options I mentioned as well as getting some games to run in DOSBox and WINE.
I personally leave new Windows machines (with Windows 7) untouched, ie. no Linux (replacement or on the side). For me Linux is a great replacement OS for older PCs which are running some old POS OS that is not secure anymore (I guess XP is fast becoming one, especially when the support ends in two years ? or so).
In the meantime, VMWare Player is certainly a very nice and convenient way of getting a taste and trying out different Linux distributions (or even Windows 8 Preview). I think I'll have to try out Mint Linux, whether it is a good replacement Linux since Ubuntu Unity is what it is.