I do not know weather you are using or have used any linux distro.
You can try Linux Mint 12. But then install Cinnamon. It is found in 'Software Manager'. It is better than MATE and Gnome3 with Gnome-shell.
If you are hearing these words for the first time, then please google for it and then then reply the post.
Regarding Linux and windows, Linux has a learning curve and takes time to understand. I do not say it is difficult, I say, it is different.
You can try.
1) Ubuntu 11.10 - Very good beginner friendly Linux Distro
2) Xubuntu 11.10 - if the Laptop is 5 year old. another lighter variant which is more energy efficient and more traditional user interface.
3) Pinguy OS 11.04 - Another derivative of Ubuntu, which has a LOt of apps installed. Try it. it's good and stable.
4) Linux Mint 12 with cinnamon.
If you are new to Linux, I will give you a brief about DE and cinnamon.
DE means Desktop Environment.
Refer Robin's reply in this postWhat is the difference between Debian, Fluxbox, XFCE, ...
Gnome2 is (err was) a very stable and popular DE, but the new version Gnome3 is hated by many users.
Gnome3 consists of gnome3 + gnome-shell.
gnome3 uses GTK+3 tool kit to produce GUI. gnome-shell is the configuration setting, system setting, etc. In crude words, when no app is running, and you are tweaking with system setting, like changing wallpapers, changing fonts, etc you are interacting with gnome-shell.
Clem, Founder of Linux Mint, forked gnome-shell, which currently does not offer customization and some basic options like having icons on desktop (ya, you read it right), making it less-user friendly and more touch screen optimized. He created cinnamon. Cinnamon, though relatively new is very stable and offers more customization.
After installing Mint, if you find only one update - mint update, then so not be surprised. Just install it and then again run update manager. You will get 150 MB or more updates.
Basically, after installing any distro, you run update manager (in case of Ubuntu and it's derivatives).
I know i have given you a lot of options. Linux has a feature called as LIVE CD. It allows you to test and run any distro without installing it. Just burn ISO as Image and not as data or download any free tool that supports burning ISO images.
To Cut short, if you have a new distro, try (not in chronological order)
1) Linux Mint 12 (1 GB) or - Love it - User Friendly
2) Pinguy OS 11.04 (1.7 GB) - Recommend it - User Friendly.
For older PC / Laptop, with less RAM 512, install Xubuntu 11.10. It has Ubuntu as it's core, but uses lighter (on resources) apps and XFCE as DE instead of UNITY used by Ubuntu. UNITY is just like cinnamon. It runs on top of Gnome3 i.e. in combination with gnome3.
If you have 256 MB RAM, try Lubuntu, still Lighter derivative and see if it works. Else Try Antix, which is based on Mepis, which in turn is based on Big mother Debian Stable Branch). Antix requires only 64 MB to run, so It should be comfortable with 128 MB RAM.
Please note that Linux has
1) A Learning curve
2) Takes time to settle down
3) Needs newbies to search internet and find solution, like you did my posting in forums). So your friend should be capable to search ad implement the suggestions
4) Broadband connection is recommended.
5) Always check hardware compatibility, incase the laptop has nvidia or any other extra stuff. nvidia needs proprietary drivers, which are not installed by default, but system prompts you upon installation or even in LIVE CD. Just insert LIVE CD and see if everything is working fine. Feel comfortable. You can edit documents, view photos, listen mp3, etc even in LIVE CD / DVD. Then go for installing any distro.