[Update: This whole post is a lie. See how Chrome is the culprit here. and see my confirmation that Cinnamon is fine here.]
A few weeks ago I switched to Linux Mint and chose the Cinnamon desktop. That turned out to be a disaster with my cheap Dell laptop (Vostro 1440). The performance was excruciatingly slow -- apps would take tens of seconds to open, the mouse would freeze, etc. Switching to Mate has made it bearable. Unfortunately, switching the desktop, while doable (Google it) doesn't work perfectly. I have duplicate items in some menus, or multiple ways to do the same thing. I never know when I'm going to see Nautilus or Caja when I open a folder.
I also suspect, based on what I was seeing while trying to debug the performance problem, that a 5400 RPM drive just doesn't cut it for a desktop user. The minute I dip into swap space, performance starts to fall off. I guess what I really should say is that 5400 RPM disk plus 2 GB of RAM doesn't cut it. That would solve the swapping. However, I would expect the slow drive would still slow initial program start-up.