"...program takes to load with an average 2-3 minutes to get it into edit mode with a very small project"
This should be the case with the first launch, the subsequent launches should be faster.
You can even try swtiching off the thumbnails of the timeline clips. For this you need to press the small film strip like icon on the left of the track name. (This is a toggle button to switch between modes)
"The rendering process , that seems to take place all the time, is also agonizingly slow. Are there preference settings that might make it run more quickly?"
If you are facing difficultly and dont use these features for your reqular work, try switching these OFF from the Preferences. (Background rendering can be switched OFF from the Preferences within the application, whereas the "Analysis" can be switched OFF from the "Elements Organiser
Running Vista on a Pentium 4 is a bit of stretch anyway -- particularly if you haven't optimized Vista for editing, per the FAQs to the right of this forum.
You also should ensure you have all of the updates to Vista SP2, including non-critical ones. You may even want to do a repair/install of Vista. Believe it or not, with all of the updates this past year, a repair can greatly improve performance.
There is also a tweak to ensure Vista makes more efficient use of your RAM, again from the FAQS to the right of this forum.
55 gigs of hard drive space is also a bit tight for video editing, depending on your video source files (unless you're editing to a second hard drive or to an external drive). I recommend you always keep at least 30 gigabytes of clean, defragmented space on your C drive when operating an intensive program like Premiere Elements -- and that doesn't give you much room for your video clips and scratch disks.
But the real core issue is likely your source files -- particularly since you mention rendering issues. What type of camcorder are you editing video from and how are you getting the video into your computer?
With your limited power, I'd recommend you stick to video from a miniDV camcorder. Hi-def video -- particularly AVCHD video -- is going to choke the life out of your machine.
The problem here as i see is:
1. Intel (R) Pentium (R) 4 CPU 3.00 Ghz
Your processor seems to be slow for handling video editing.
RAM and Free disc space are good, its nice to know that you keep your system clean, however i'd still recommend you to get a upgrade for your processor.