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As far as the "easy" rpm goes, I assume you are talking about URPMI? No matter, apt-get now works with rpms. You need apt4rpm and Synaptic. Piece of cake.
Lowest resource distros tend to be Slackware, Debian, Gentoo, College Liinux - SuSE, RedHat and Mandrake, as the most 'complete' and 'newbie' distros (ducks for flames) are the most resource hungry. Again, KDE and Gnome tend to be very resource hungry, but Blackbox, Fluxbox, Xfce and others are very low resource.
i just installed Libranet debian yesterday on my PII300/64mb, and it is blazingly fast with icewm (its default wm). that uses apt-get, of course. gentoo is also an excellent choice for speed, if you build for your architecture from stage1 or 2. that has the portage "emerge" tool. and of course slackware simply rules. best advice imho is to stay away from KDE and Gnome and use something else -- just about anything will be faster than those, including windowmaker, icewm, xfce4 fluxbox/blackbox, etc.
I don't know about RPM distros that automatically download all necessary files....sounds like some crazy newfangled space-age technology....
Anywho, SuSE also uses RPM, but it's an annoying package system, IMO.
Fast and efficient distro is definitely Slackware.
Fast and efficient GUI: Fluxbox is my favorite, but Openbox/Blackbox are a bit faster.
Overall best choice in my mind for someone new is SuSE. I think there are a few things about it that would bug an advanced user, but so far it's been very good to me.
post your laptop's specs here so we can give a more in-depth advice and not just call out distros
depending upon how much knowledge you have of linux or how much you may wish to learn, your choice of distros may vary
first of all, those rpm distros (already mentioned, mandrake, redhat, suse) tend to NeEd the automatic dependency checking, etc, because those distros tend to run into lots of "dependency hell" so that nifty rpm tool (called urpmi in mandrake) shouldn't be a major factor in your consideration of a distro
anyway, that is not to say other distros don't run into dependency problems, but from experience, i run into far fewer in slackware than i did in mandrake
onto the important stuff, the distros
right now, assuming that your computer has low memory (because memory has more effect on determining what distro/gui to use than processor speed), i must suggest that you stay away from things like mandrake and redhat
those types of distros tend to load everything into your machine at once, (called the shotgun method by some of my friends), so that it will have the greatest chance of having all hardware detected by everyone who uses the distro and having all programs and services enabled and ready for use in any possible fashion
to top it off, these distros prefer to use the more mem-consuming desktop environments, gnome and kde, both which are nice and powerful, but not useful for low-mem computers
now stepping away from negatives, let's go to positives
you can pretty much narrow it down to this: you will probably not end up using a "newbie" distro and may need to use a distro with a higher learning curve, but that's ok, linuxquestions is here for that reason!
i can tell you that you will probably end up using slackware or debian, or one of their spinnoff's like vectorlinux, libranet, college linux, etc.
i would personally recommend slackware because installation is simple (i have heard that debian is a pain to install) and it is designed to be well compatible with systems down the the 486 level and can be customized to run on low mem
with slackware, you should use something like fluxbox or windowmaker, both which require very little memory
i have also heard that vector-linux (a slackware spinoff) runs very well on low-mem computers, so that is also an option
I'm a long time Mandrake user, since 6.2. URMPI is excellent for installing applications and resolving dependencies. I run it on a compaq 600Mhtz PIII celeron laptop with 192 meg of ram, this is my work machine. I use KDE, it is a resource hog however it out performs windows 2000 (I know that's not saying much).
However, if you want a faster performance machine, I run Gentoo on a Dell 600Mhtz pIII celeron with 256meg ram with WiFi at home. It out performs my work laptop by two times. Gentoo has an excellent install guide and very good support, a forum on the gentoo.org site and IRC channels on freenode. Portage is the system that Gentoo uses for software install management. The application on your machine is emerge. Installing an applications is as easy as typing "emerge appname" the system checks for dependencies, downloads every thing needed compiles and installs. The downside is that the large things like KDE or gnome take a long time to compile, it took my 600Mhz machine 36 hours to compile KDE. Although they do have precompiled binaries for the basic system and KDE and GNOME, this can save some time but you may sacrifice performance.