So I ended up scrapping the whole project in favor of buying the real thing. Doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything.
First important lesson: IDE drives are absurdly poorly supported. Install went smooth as anything on the desktop system, with SSE2-enabled chipset and SATA DVD and hard drives. On the laptop, no such luck. Older ATI cards are also hell to install properly.
What does this all mean, in my opinion? If your chipset is supported, you might as well give it a shot. But there’s no guarantee it’ll work satisfyingly on your box. If you still want to find an alternate OS, I suggest you give the Ubuntu linux distribution a try. It’s open-source and much better supported.