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Funny, my laptop is older/lesser spec than the one you have, and I have no issues like you describe...you sure your hard drive isn't dying? KDE works fine with 1GB of RAM, XFCE works great. There should by no 15 second delays opening a tab. I run a lot more than 4 tabs open, and new ones open instantly (OS is SolydX). I think you've go some kind of hardware issue, or else you've got a memory hog/leak somewhere.
Let me first state that my intention is to get a distro that works on my laptop and not to start a distro war.
I have a ancient laptop - Compaq NX 7400. When I purchased it almost 10 years back, it had humongous memory of 1.5 GB as compared to other standard machines at that time. Now this ageing machine has become my bathroom laptop where I check the state of my kingdom from throne. In other words this laptop is used only for web surfing with 4 tabs open in firefox. I do add a tab every now and then, but close it immediately as soon as I am done.
I had Ubuntu 10.04 on this machine. After getting nagged for a long time about upgrade I installed Mint cinnamon around 3-4 months back. After last update, I have now everything latest and greatest and things have slowed down significantly. To switch a tab, I have to wait almost 15 seconds. A simple page up and page down causes noticeable delays.
Looking for recommendations for a browser or lighter distro which can work on 1.5GB RAM machine. As I said its mostly (only?) for web surfing, but do need flash, adblock etc. Popups become unbearable otherwise.
I've an antique HP Pavilion Entertainment PC that originally had Windows Vista on it. It is slightly more advanced than yours though not by much. I use Slackware and XFCE and it works very well. Now, the apology is offered in advance. I just can't resist this: considering where you use the machine, might not a good flush help?
1.5GB of RAM should be enough for most things. Granted that sites are more media rich these days. Which makes them appear much slower on older tech and slow hard drives. You might give midori a try as a browser depending on your needs. You might lower the size of your cache for the browser, or raise it if it's excessively small. Or move your cache to a ramdisk, you have plenty of RAM.
There are system things that could slow you down. Like lots of files / installed things on your drive. Like large log files because you're not doing things in a traditional way. If you don't run regular updates, updatedb and ldconfig might not have run in recent history and finding things on a drive can take longer. If you don't run cron (I don't, but I have it installed) you could have overly large log files because logrotate hasn't run in a while. And other ways to optimize a linux system which might act it's age of not coddled in certain ways.