I have a question that may be dumb to some, but i will ask anyway, since i don't understand it fully. Can i install an upgrade copy of windows xp on a blank, self built machine, if i borrow a windows 98 disk from my friend as a "verification disk". If not, can i install other free alternatives like linux, etc. that are easy to learn how to use, that will work as a good testing machine? thanks to those who can help.

a) yes you can upgrade like that but it wont be legal (although ms will probably never find out)
b) yes you can install linux, ubuntu is pretty easy to use, i can help you get started with that

what do i do first to install linux onto a brand new machine with no os.

depends on which one

with ubuntu linux download the .iso file from tho=ier site (600-800mb - dont use dialup)
make sure you get the desktop version and version 7.x not version 6.x

you then burn the .iso file to a disk as an image (do not burn it like an ordinary file) - use a tool called DeepBurner to do this - it has a free version and is easy to burn .iso images with

you then boot from the cd like you would when installing windows (by going into the BIOS and making the optical drive the main boot device)

ubuntu linux will then load. You can try it out, but it may be slow (it loads everything into RAM so you can try it without touching the hard disk)

if you like it, then click the icon for the installer on the desktop. The install itself is very easy.

Afterwards, reboot (make sure to remove the cd!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and enjoy your linux system

what exactly is ubuntu. can you post links for info and pictures.