I have Xubuntu 13.04 on an old Dell Inspiron with 1 GB RAM and about 2 GB swap.
Each time I launch an application (e.g. Thunar or Evince) it takes a pretty long time to be launched and I see a lot of disk reads/writes.
If the system was short on memory, this would be understandable as the system would use swap. But that's not the case in my situation (i.e. I have this problem even when the RAM is almost empty).
I had the same problem with this laptop with an older version of Ubuntu as well. Maybe the problem is with the old ATA drive?