You probably thought about that but... if you're a busy person, "transitioning" to Linux (or any other OS : OS X, Windows) without very good
reasons, isn't -- IMO -- a good idea. Of coure the "very good reasons" can be as simple as "fun and variety". But in any case your goals need to be clear as transitioning is NOT simple, easy and rapid
-- at least for people like you (I don't know you that much, but you seem to be even pickier then me, which is rare
Of course, for my daughter, switching from windows to Linux was just a matter of selecting Linux in the boot menu. But all she does is searching Google, playing a few flash games and writing stuff in libre office !
So, my 2c :
- 1 or 2 y ago, after some exploration, I chose Mint to install on older laptop here.** Others here have mentioned Mint, it's a good choice, there are many other good choices depending on your goals. Context is important.
- Using a live CD or a spare computer are also good ideas in what seems to be your case. If you're a busy person, you don't want to be immobilized because things aren't working at all. I wouldn't go the VM route. It seems simple, but... it depends.
**Note that I've been a Linux user (almost exclusively) between 98 and 2000 I think (although the journey started in 1997). Things were a lot less smooth at the time with distros like Caldera, Mandrake, Suse and RedHat. When I look back at those 2 years, I see I had fun and learned many things. But I also see a gigantic time drain in which I could've been much more productive (and a better boyfriend, for that matter!), but was mainly obsessed with drivers, broken kernels, internet connection, file conversions, software testing, etc.
Things have changed a lot since then, but success depends roughly on 1- what one wants to do, when, with whom, etc. (i.e. : context related parameters), 2- the person's technical level.