I will be dual-booting Vector Linux with Windows XP. At this point here is what I would like to know before starting this:
a.) What OS do I instal first? Do I leave the XP in there and install Vector on top of it? Or do I install Vector first?
It's much easier to have XP installed first. Since it's already on your computer, you should install VectorLinux in free space or an empty partition. Example: if you have a Drive D for Windows that's at least 6 gigs in size and preferably much larger, move everything there to Drive C so that Drive D is empty. Then during the installation of VL, you can tell it to use what is now an empty Drive D for Linux. I suggest using the partition tool (GParted with the graphical installer, cfdisk with the text installer), delete the empty partition, and set a Linux swap partition of 512 megs and the rest as a Linux partition. It will be formatted with a Linux file system during the installation.
During the VL installation, you will be offered the opportunity to install LILO, the Linux boot loader. I suggest installing LILO on the boot sector of your Linux partition and using the NT boot loader for booting to either XP or VectorLinux. I explain how to do this in the HowTo's here: http://forum.vectorlinux.com/index.php?topic=1073.msg6559#msg6559
Using the NT Loader will leave your Master Boot Record untouched so you will never have a problem booting XP.
b.) What version of Vector should I use with my set up? I have some familiarity with KDE, a lot more with Gnome and none with Flux, Ice or XFCE. What would be a perfect fit?
The latest non-beta version of VectorLinux is VL6.0 Standard. It comes with XFce as its default desktop and includes LXDE as an alternate. KDE is the default in VectorLinux SOHO, the latest version of which is 5.9.1. You can add KDE 3.5.10 or KDE 4.2.1 from the VectorLinux repositories to VL 6 Standard if you want KDE. Gnome is not installed with any version of VectorLinux, but there are packages for a complete installation in the
/gsb-2.22 section of the repos.
With 2 gigs of RAM and the amount of drive space you have, you can install any version of VL that you want. I'm partial to VL 6 Standard because it gives you a complete but lean system on which you can build and make your VL whatever you want. It works on older hardware but really shines on newer hardware. I'm also an XFce user with no desire to use anything else. XFce is very easy to use and customize and you can use any Gnome or KDE packages you want as long as you have the dependencies installed. Package installation is very easy through the slapt-get command line programs or the slapt-get graphical interface called Gslapt.
c.) What are some cardinal rules NOT to break when dual-booting with Vector?
Back up your present system before you install VectorLinux, ESPECIALLY if you're going to repartition or shrink your present partitions. If you want to share files between Linux and Windows, it's best to have those files on a FAT32 partition. For a long time, Linux could read files on an NTFS partition but could not safely write to an NTFS partition. Within the past couple of years Linux has been able to mount an NTFS partition under something called ntfs-3g, which is pretty reliable when it comes to writing to an NTFS partition safely. However, I still prefer to avoid writing to NTFS if possible, so the files I want to share (music, photos, e-mail, data from cross-platform programs like OpenOffice and Scribus, etc.) are on a FAT32 partition.
I think it's better to not automount Windows partitions, especially the one that contains your operating system files. It's safer for your Windows partitions and also shields your Linux partition from possible malware that might be on your Windows partition and able to do damage to Linux (little or none of that around, but better to be safe than sorry).
I do automount my FAT32 partition with the files I share, but I leave my NTFS partitions unmounted unless and until I need them. Once I've finished my business, I unmount them.
Any Linux files for which ownership and permissions are important (such as those that should belong to root or those you want accessible only by certain users) should be on a Linux partition, not a FAT32 or NTFS partition. So if you have data that you don't want to be visible to anyone who uses your computer, put it on a Linux partition.
I've been dual booting Windows and Linux for a very long time with no problems. My primary operating system is VectorLinux, but I do have to run programs occasionally that don't have Linux equivalents. I hope you'll love VectorLinux as much as I do!