Help Me Get Started

Hey everyone.

It looks like tomorrow is going to be a snow day so I thought it would be a good time to give a Linux distro a try on one of my laptops that doesn't get used much any more. I'd like to do this without overwriting the existing OS (Windows 8). I plan to use it for a few weeks to familiarize myself with the OS.

I've selected Linux Mint Mate as my starting point. The ISO is downloading now so either this afternoon or tomorrow evening, I'll get to installing it, but I have some questions.

1) Is it possible to use this distro from a disk or USB drive instead of installing it on a hard drive? If so, what do I need to know?

2) Where is the best step by step guide on putting Linux (and this distro in particular) on my hardware?

3) What are some of the best programs to install once I'm up and running?

Thanks in advance. If I've left out any relevant information, just post what is missing below. I'll be lurking all afternoon.