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What is the distro? Most importantly, what is its package management system?
You should be able to install xfce or lxde packages - once installed they should appear in your login display manager as options (usually in a dropdown somewhere). If you are sure you have already installed xfce and lxde then it may be necessary to reconfigure your login display manager ... again, it depends what your distro actually is.
I have a few old Dell laptops - 256mbs 1Ghz 20gbs HD, and wanted to experiment with something a little more mature than just Puppy Linux - which works wonders on them. Formatted HD each time.
So I first tried Mint 9 LXDE, and here are the results... (formatted HD each time)
LiveCD boot time = 8 mins
Installation time = 55 mins
Bootup time = 72 secs
Abiword launch = 18 secs
Then I tried Xubuntu 8.04.1 and here are the results....
LiveCD boot time = 3.5 mins
Installation time = 37 mins
Bootup time = 49 secs
Abiword launch = 3 secs
Did not find out RAM usage as just looking at real-time results.
Could it be that the older Kernel is more suited to the older hardware. I would have thought that LXDE being lighter would have been quicker even with some incompatibilities.
Looks like your Mint install is tapping the swap file too much. It shouldn't be that much slower than the Xubuntu install.
If you're feeling experimental, try Calculate Xfce, or Vector Linux Starndard. Both of those should be easier on resources and be faster than Xubuntu. Vector has a GUI updater as well if you don't like the command-line. Calculate is based off of Gentoo, so it has a lot newer stuff, and they update their ISO's weekly.