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re-install 8.6 and do a "custom install" to only install what she needs for light surfing and email
go thru each section and check ON only what is needed

see if that lowers the RAM requirements enough so that you don't have to turn ON virtual memory (VM). VM is a real performance killer. if running 8.1 forces you to use VM, it will be comparing apples to apples and as such performace gain will be nominal.

do you have system CD for 8.1 and 8.6???

i would lean towards 8.6 so as not to be too far behind. 8.1 was a pretty long time ago.

also, if memory serves, the networking component of 8.6 is better than 8.1.
 

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don't forget to remove fonts, chooser extensions, unnecessary extensions, unnecessary control panels

unnecessary = not needed or rarely needed

it's worth going through your system folder manually, especially with RAM being so tight.

did you find out if VM is ON or OFF?
 
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