I've been struggling for some time with poor performance of Ubuntu, and now Mint, on my Dell Vostro 1440. Admittedly it's a cheap laptop, but in this day and age a Linux desktop should run decently on pretty much anything, as long as you're not using a lot of fancy desktop effects.
Running top I was seeing a lot of wait time. When the performance was really bad, I'd see over 90 percent wait time. Typically I'd be dipping into swap space when performance was bad, but it would be bad without swapping (I "only" have 2 GB of RAM). I would see this when running only Thunderbird and Chrome, although Chrome with a lot of tabs open.
I spent many frustrating hours Googling for performance issues on Ubuntu or Mint and didn't find anything really promising.
Finally, last weekend I was dropping off some old computer gear for recycling at our local Free Geek and saw a pretty sweet Dell laptop for sale. I started playing with it, partly to see how it performed. They sell used computers with Ubuntu, and Ubuntu comes with Firefox. Firefox was snappy as all get out, and on a lower powered CPU than mine at home.
So I went home and tried Firefox. It works great. So I started Googling performance problems with Chrome on Linux and got all sorts of hits. This one looks like it's turning into a bit of an omnibus bug report, but has some good info and links to other places.
It looks like one factor is that Google has made its own Flash viewer, since Adobe is no longer supporting new versions of Flash on Linux. Many people report disabling the Google Flash viewer helps, but it didn't work for me.
Others report that it is indeed due to memory usage of Chrome with many tabs. Others report that it has something to do with using hardware graphics rendering, that the hardware is actually slower. Still others report issues with Chrome scanning for devices, and particularly webcams.
My gut says it's a combination of things -- perhaps all of the above are involved, but you only see the performance problem when two or more of the factors coincide.
I haven't found a solution that works for me yet, so I'm somewhat reluctantly using Firefox. It's certainly a lot faster than it was two years ago. However, I miss the combined link and search field in Chrome, amongst other things. It does seem like Firefox has stolen most of Chrome's good ideas, so it's not as hard as I thought it might be to readjust.