Time for an update.
I ended up giving up on repairing Windows on this laptop. A friend brought a MS DART repair disc (well USB stick) over - it's good to have friends with academic licenses. I got as far as determining my initial hunch was correct. The last time Windows loaded correctly it was completing a VPN client install which followed installation of GoToMeeting and a VOIP client.
It was the first time I had gotten to play with one of those repair discs so at least that was kind of fun. I particularly liked the Autoruns management console. I was hoping the fix might be as simple as stopping the runonce entry for the VPN client but it didn't seem to make any difference. I ended up deciding to do a clean install and put a copy of the old one on a second partition. I kind of hate to do that but she had so much software installed I didn't want to think about finding half of what she might want.
However the plan has changed since then because that clearly would have been too simple. I offered to look at her husband's laptop which was telling him it didn't have a hard drive. I was pretty sure it didn't because he apparently lost his temper one time too many (in his defense it has Vista) and pounded the keyboard with his fist - directly over the drive. After looking up the computer's specs and realized they were almost identical to his wife's laptop I foolishly offered to move her hard drive to his computer and make one good computer.
Just the restore turned out to be more work than I anticipated due to Dell's decision to go with a WIM setup for factory restore and do away with their old Ghost-based system. I'm not complaining about that. It's the right way to go. Unfortunately it also means installing the retail Windows 7 upgrade wiped out their restore option from Windows' advanced boot menu. I could install from the Windows disc except, contrary to what the sticker on the sleeve says, there is no COA on the computer so apparently I'll have to get the key from the image on the restore partition. At least now I know that should be no problem.
Before I get started, though, I have a couple questions about the Win7 install I'm hoping somebody here can answer.
The first one is pretty simple. If I understand correctly, as long as Vista is already installed I should have no problems doing a clean install by booting into Windows setup because it checks for the previous version prior to the partitioning step. In theory I might be able to boot the Dell Vista install on the second (HP) laptop and do it from there but I'd rather avoid that. As similar as they are internally, I'd rather sidestep any potential issues completely. Does that sound right or am I making it harder than necessary?
The second question is the one I'm really concerned about. The Win7 upgrade has already been used on the Dell machine. How much of a pain is it likely to be to get Windows activated on the other laptop? I didn't have any problem on my computer when I replaced my motherboard with a different model that had a different, but similar, chipset. I'm not sure, off the top of my head, which components are relevant here but I'm guessing the HP unit is further away from the Dell than that.
If nothing else the HP has a lot more IO ports. The Dell has USB x3, SVGA, RJ-45, and a memory card reader. The HP has all that, with a different card reader of course, plus HDMI, eSATA, Firewire, an infrared sensor, and a dock port.