|but I have heard horror stories about Dell support|
I had heard bad reports about them as well, prior to purchasing my notebook.
What I have found with Dell, and all other support divisions, is that the first call starts with a lot of customer information gathering to establish a case (or reference) number. After the initial information provisions, you will be in a situation where you may be speaking with someone who has direct access to the information related to the company parts, policies, and normal support procedures - while you have equal or better knowledge of actually working on a computer from a hardware or software perspective.
I find that being politely helpful, while allowing the support person on the other end to do their job in the step-by-step procedure they are taught, is much more productive than attempting to bypass the basic steps, to find the answers you are looking for. I have also found that if I explain the situation in a clear and concise mannor, the support person can then rule out a few items and shorten the process.
In many cases, this first person may need to consult a supervisor for the more advanced questions, which can take some time. Again, being patient is a helpful way to go about dealing with this type of situation.
As for the "Do-it-yourself" type of person, of which there are many, the fact that Dell allows easy access to drivers and software based on the "Service Tag" number is a very easy way to update the system without dealing with the support people on the phone.
In my case, I immediately requested the XP Pro installation disc, which was not an option under the "Customize It" sections at the time. I received it literally the next day at work, and was able to do a clean install with the help of the downloaded drivers. I did this because I do not use the hidden partition created at the factory to allow novice users to restore the original configuration as shipped - for emergency situations (note - this is of course a nice feature for people such as your daughter, as long as she practices back-ups to either removable media, or an external hard drive, for school files, music, pictures, etc.).
I also upgraded the hard drive, optical drive (the only issue here is the bevel size to fit tightly in the slot opening), and even an Intel Pentium M (760) processor by purchasing from "Newegg.com" which saved me a bundle of money, and provides a nice platform for the upcoming Vista.
I can at least say that Dell does a good job with the hardware assembly, and they also provide a service manual online outlining the replacement of all parts of the computer hardware. A very nice touch IMHO.
I would assume that other companies may provide the same resources, but I only have experience with the Dell notebook I possess - as far as notebooks go.
The best recommendation, whichever route you go, would be to make sure you get the processor (solo or dual) and video card that will provide the platform for the intended use of the machine upon the original purchase. The hard drive and memory upgrades, which could be done on vacation time at home by yourself, are 'no-brainers'.