Greatly appreciate everyone's thoughts on my laptop issues. Going to systematically try out y'all's suggestions and then I suspect I'll be making a trip down to Microcenter (thanks, tripper!) to consult with their HP service folks. Might as well take advantage of the warranty while it's still valid.
Club 100 For Writers
update on laptop prob:
I got on the HP support website and did the online chat with the tech thing. She had me update the system bios as they felt it was not a hradware problem but that the bios just isn't always telling the fan to turn on. And as for how long does it take to overheat with the fan not working? About 3 or 4 minutes, depending on how good it is ventilated (being flat on a hard surface being best). The cooling lap tray thing works, but most of them are a bit awkward to use.