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Image viewers belong to a software category where the quantity and quality of free programs makes it difficult to select just one product as a top pick. So, personal convenience will unavoidably appear as the ultimate factor for this review of free applications. And there's also the question of what exactly we mean by an "image viewer", as the name may sound a bit too restrictive.
Digital photography has become so widely available that most pictures these days will linger in a memory drive and never be printed, because we can see them on screens. As a consequence, hundreds of tools are developed for the task, ranging from the ones that offer just the most basic handling to others with loads of features nobody will ever use. However, nowadays' average users are likely to demand some additional capabilities apart from the simple viewing and browsing functions.
Some of these programs support video viewing, either by using their own player or your system's default player. The subject goes beyond the scope of this review, but I'll say you must have the proper codecs for the various video formats installed on your computer and this might be somewhat tricky to get done because you'll have to download and set up additional plug-ins, codec packs or even a separate application sometimes. Full HD and certain video formats usually require a lot of processing power to be displayed. The articles Understanding Codecs and Best Free Media Player are good readings to learn more.
Zoner Software are the developers of one of the commercial programs I've been using for a long time to view and manage my huge picture collection, so when I saw they released Zoner Photo Studio Free, I guessed it was going to qualify high enough for its inclusion here. It certainly did, but who knew it would climb up to be the Top Pick! The interface looks very professional, although it could even seem a bit daunting and bloated for certain users with all those menus, tabs and icons, but it's very intuitive and tooltips show up for everything. Comprehensive help and links to video tutorials are provided as well.
Four main tabs are displayed at the top, each one addressing a task: import (to acquire pictures from connected devices), a manager (a thumbnail view with a folder tree and general information), a viewer and an editor, which is quite stripped down compared to the paid version but still very functional. ZPSF generates thumbnails in a blink, much faster than any other I've seen, and general speed is outstanding, especially if you have hardware acceleration enabled in the preferences. The zoom system now includes a very convenient one-click magnification similar to FastStone's (see below), which was an all-time first and is fortunately being copied by others. There's a powerful search with many filters and a lot of options for customization of menus and shortcuts. The functions are too many to be mentioned and generally very useful, but a couple of them alone make it worth using the program: one is the ability to temporarily rotate pics and the other allows to straighten them by drawing a line. You can also compare up to four images with synchronized panning and zooming, even if they are contained in different folders. The editor has a variety of tools like a handy clone stamp, a funny morph mesh and great effects that can be applied on selected areas. You can also make automatic backups of your photos, organize them into albums or catalogs, geotag them by dragging and dropping them onto a map, build calendars, stitch panoramas and a lot of other things. Moreover, it reads many formats, including RAW, and writes to the ten most commonly used. It supports video from within the program, 64-bit architecture and multi-core optimization.
On the downside, ZPSF takes over 350MB on your disk, an awful lot more than any of the competitors in this review, and it needs 1GB RAM. Color management and advanced batch processing options are only available in the paid version, except for renaming, though most individual operations can be carried out on more than one file at a time by selecting a number of them in the manager, opening the specific process dialog and then clicking 'Apply to all'. You also need to provide a mail account to activate the program. The download link on Zoner's site points to Cnet, which can be objectionable for their download policy and their wrapped installers, but it can be downloaded from other sites like Softpedia or Majorgeeks. Although Photo Studio might be a little overpowering for the needs of average users, it's undoubtedly an excellent program with lots of possibilities for those willing to take advantage of its many features.
XnView used to be my Top Pick till the release of Zoner Photo Studio Free and I would really keep it as such if there could be two of them. It's probably the most versatile of all viewers because it can read 500 types of graphic files (some of them may require plug-ins) and convert any of these to more than 50 formats. It displays images very quickly and they can be viewed in full screen, as thumbnails, as slideshows, or arranged in different lists and according to many options for sorting them out. It's quite capable at processing images, too; you can rotate, crop, resize, adjust brightness and color, apply filters or effects, create a web page and much more. Most of these operations can also be carried out as a batch, which is ideal for converting or processing multiple images with custom adjustments.
The thumbnail window can fit your preferences with several layouts and sizes; this is especially useful when displaying panoramic images in preview mode (see screenshot). Having the preview pane open does not slow things down like it often happens in other viewers. It offers nearly instantaneous hotkey and wheel zooming, and dragging the image around at any zoom level is perfectly smooth. It also allows having several images open at the same time and even running multiple instances of the program if you like to browse in different windows. There are many options to customize in the settings. It supports drag and drop, color management (with slower loading times), geotagging, lots of plug-ins, and is available in 45+ languages. A heavyweight champion.
One of the best choices is the classic IrfanView (named after its author Irfan Skiljan). This is a first-class product, but one for which I have mixed feelings. I began using it in 1998, when somebody told me it was an excellent (and at that time, probably the only) free replacement for MS W98's viewer. I really loved it because it allowed me to do many things with the photos I scanned, before I went digital. It's always been an amazingly capable application and very fast at displaying images. It offers plenty of functions for editing, converting, batch processing, slideshow exporting, etc. and supports almost any graphics plug-in (including one for color management). Some of the features (its resizing algorithms, for instance) are outstanding and could even rank above a big fish like Photoshop. It's a small download and it takes a mere 2MB on disk. This program has steadily remained the most downloaded (and then probably used) free viewer on download sites. And not without a reason, because it's a very powerful performer.
But, although so many users love it, IrfanView just doesn't work the way I'd like it to. As personal quirks I'll say wheel zooming here requires holding the Ctrl key because it's assigned to browsing previous/next file by default, but then an image zoomed larger than the program window moves up and down when you spin the wheel. Basic as it seems, there's no way to inspect different areas of a magnified image by clicking on it and dragging around with the mouse. RAW support needs several different downloads and installs for plug-ins or dll's, and I don't see the point in having that separate module for thumbnails. This, however, may be exactly what others prefer and the same applies to the interface, which looks a bit too outdated to me. It's quite simplistic, but not really intuitive and it's looked almost the same since early versions. I'm not fond of programs changing interfaces if I like a previous one, but a revamp might be welcome once in a while. Anyway, Irfan is a real winner for obvious reasons.
FastStone Image Viewer is another excellent choice. It is very user-friendly and there are various reasons to choose this, but perhaps the main one is its superb interface in full screen mode, with different pop-up panels appearing when the mouse pointer reaches any side of the screen and disappearing when it's withdrawn. You can easily access nearly every function in the program from this window with no other element disturbing you until you decide it with just a mouse move, including a very handy thumbnail slider to browse your images. Even the smallest menus or panels in any of the modes are clear and well designed, and there are several skins available.
Aside from the usual wheel zooming, the zoom system has a very clever feature: it magnifies to a custom preset level with just one click, letting you pan around the image while holding the button, and returns to full view when it's released. This is really useful to check out sharpness or details in a photo and FastStone was the first viewer to include this great feature. Average files are displayed quickly and their thumbnails are generated promptly. But it's slower showing bigger files (>20MB, depending on the format and resolution) and others perform much better in this field, though that won't be an issue for most users. It may be a good idea to disable the preview pane in the thumbnail window as a way to speed things up. There's also an option to use color management, but it increases loading time. Another outstanding plus is the batch processing options, quite extensive and really easy to set up and run. A few useful editing features have been added in later versions, including curves, levels, lighting, unsharp mask, clone and heal. It also supports all major graphic formats and popular digital camera RAW formats as well, and offers an excellent cropping module, great slideshow capabilities and GPS location with Google Earth. Much to like here.
I can recommend another program, after most of my initial objections were overcome by the evidence and the author, who also showed a very positive response to my feedback. This special mention goes to WildBit Viewer, an outstanding application that can rival the ones reviewed above in many aspects. The program is highly manageable and functional enough to earn the respect of many users.
Apart from the usual features you'd expect, it offers aspect ratio information, small-increment wheel zooming, a very intuitive image editor with a full array of editing tools, a superpowerful search function that can track any metadata or EXIF information, an excellent geotagging tool to embed geographical co-ordinates in the files, and the most comprehensive help you can imagine. There's also a function for side-by-side image comparison with difference calculations, and a highly customizable slideshow mode. It supports over 70 formats (including some videos, from which frames can be extracted in multipage view) and runs on Windows XP through W8. From version 6 on, it includes full Unicode support. WildBit Viewer is a very competent alternative.
After several years with just those five products making up the top list, a fairly new contender that goes by the funny name of Nomacs - Image Lounge has made it to finally include a much longed-for representative of the open source projects. This is another case of developers' responsiveness to user requests, together with some interesting approaches to image viewing. (Thanks to fellow editor Panzer for his suggestion). Nomacs looks nice and simple and offers the components I like to have in a viewer, such as a built-in folder tree, a thumbnail preview panel, a thumbnail strip, a few sorting options, a histogram, EXIF information, fine image quality and good speed. A few basic adjustment options are also available, like rotation, cropping, resizing, and correcting brightness, contrast, saturation, exposure, etc. There's a slideshow player, too. It supports quite a lot of file formats, including RAW and PSD. Moreover, it has 64-bit portable versions and can run on Windows, Mac OS and Linux. I recommend using the right-click context menu and also taking a look into the Settings (inside the 'Edit' menu or the context menu), then check the 'Advanced' box and customize whatever options to your liking.
But Nomacs is really special because of a few other things that are uncommon for programs in this category. For example, it can change the transparency of its interface, open very large images with surprising ease, show them in a frameless view on your desktop, rotate RAW files permanently, build a mosaic based on a target image composed by any number of other images, or pause animated GIF files and save their individual frames. These are all outstanding features, but something I had never seen before is that multiple instances of the program can be connected to work together on the same computer or even synchronize them across a LAN to perform several specific functions on different machines at the same time.
There are a few inconveniences, though. When you come from other viewers, it takes some time to get used to the layout, since a number of common generic functions are assigned to unexpected menus. No undo command is available for any of the eventual edits you might apply to a photo (and this option has actually been discarded from future development). The mouse wheel zooms in and out with totally inconsistent steps, so it's almost impossible to get the same magnification twice or zoom up to a desired exact level with it, except for 100% view. And the zoom allows no custom levels, though this will likely be included in future versions along with some batch processing capabilities, which are currently lacking. Despite these flaws, Nomacs is an appealing product that many users will appreciate.
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I've tested a large number of other applications (too many to be mentioned), but none of them made it to the top. That includes all of those suggested by readers — though I always have some of them pending —. When this was the case, I usually replied with a post in the comments section with my reasons. Maybe your favorite program has already been discarded here, but feel free to submit any product you think might deserve a try (please, only after having tried it yourself). There are many decent ones and even Windows' built-in viewer performs acceptably when browsing through average images, although it is so limited. Now that everybody has lots of photos to deal with, one would expect some improvements in Microsoft's viewing app over the old W98 and XP in the successive OS's, but it's been very disappointing to find out neither Vista nor Windows 7 or 8 were significantly better for the task so many years later, and such a bleak background is another spur for software developers. This article is going to be lengthy but it wouldn't be fair to end the review without mentioning some other freebies that offer quite remarkable features. (Thanks to everyone who let me know about them.)
Users who just want a simple replacement for the default Windows photo viewer have a very good alternative with ACDSee Free, which was first released in 2012. Its commercial sibling has long been one of the highly regarded applications in this area and the free version is on par with it in terms of speed, which is impressive. Almost no other program can display pictures as quickly as ACDSee, no matter the image size. For this alone it deserves a place in our review. The interface is simple and clean, and its default gray color is appropriate for a correct viewing experience. The mouse wheel can be used for zooming by pressing the Ctrl key, though its primary function is to select the previous or next image in a folder. A double click displays a full screen view and a few keyboard shortcuts are available for navigation. It supports 11 common formats — including animated GIF, but not RAW or PSD —, and can convert to 8 of them using the 'save as' command. Other functions include rotate, copy, set as wallpaper and a very nice group of printing options. And that's just about it!
Speed is the strongest point in its favor but if it hadn't been for that, probably ACDSee Free wouldn't be listed here because there are no other special features to talk about. It's just a sequential viewer like many others and it relies on Windows explorer to access folders and images. I miss some more customization or any kind of sorting options. For my review I usually test the programs on different systems, machines and screens. In this case I must point out the unsatisfactory quality of ACDSF's image rendition for JPGs on all tested environments. The problem isn't evident at closer zoom levels, but when fitting the whole image to the program window it appears a bit blurry, but the TIF and PNG versions for the same JPG files look nicer and crisper. A personal inconvenience is that the Esc key always closes the program. On another note, the installation occupies nearly 30MB on disk, which is a remarkably high amount for such an apparently simple program. Nevertheless, all these drawbacks could be considered as minor. I know simplicity and good speed are what many users really want for their needs, and ACDSee Free is a champion at both.
(ACDSee Free seems to have been discontinued, as it isn't listed on the official website anymore, but it can still be found at some download sites like the one in the link above. Anyway, I guess I'll have to remove it from Gizmo's Freeware in the near future.)
Simplicity and speed are also key features in a very nice program called Nexus Image. This one was suggested by one of our readers (choifamilyipad) and it has turned out to be probably the most appealing of all the "simple" viewers to me because of its outstanding image quality and beautiful interface. Its opacity and color can be changed and a vertical thumbnail strip on the right makes browsing easier than in most other simple apps, where a linear previous/next file navigation must be followed. Folders are quickly accessed by double clicking the viewing window, selecting one from the tree and opening an image. Then you can use the functions either by right clicking and selecting them from the context menu or by means of conventional shortcuts, although mouse wheel zooming requires pressing Ctrl. Captions can be added to pictures, it can show EXIF information, supports common formats (not RAW, but does PSD and animated GIF), is available in many languages, has a light footprint on your system and is fully portable, with just a 2MB download.
On the downside, being so simple means there aren't many features to talk about and I miss some of them in particular, namely some kind of sorting options for the thumbnails, basic cropping, and permanent rotation applied to pics, as it is just temporary in this software. Again, if you're used to pressing Escape to close a fullscreen view of an image in other viewers, then you'll find it a personal annoyance in Nexus, because doing so here closes the program with no prompt and you just can't help pushing the damn key... Well, anyway, that's something you can live with, I guess. And this program is worth the trouble.
Honeyview, suggested by our reader Pliskin, is also one of those simple viewers sparing in features and focused on the basic viewing experience. It has a pleasant interface and a small set of intuitive controls for navigation. Most functions are accessed via right-click menu or keyboard shortcuts, and you can configure up to seven hotkeys to your liking. There are a few basic sorting options available and a slideshow mode. You will love its great speed even with big files and formats such as PSD or LZW-compressed TIF, which the majority of viewing programs take longer to open. The image quality is also wonderful and RAW files are beautifully rendered if you choose not to display the embedded JPG, although this method is obviously slower. What is not slow at all is the rendering of images using the ICC color profile they may have attached; this is a remarkable aspect where nearly all the competitors are extremely weak, even the top ranking ones. Quite a lot of settings can be tweaked to fit your preferences, including background colors, mouse buttons' behavior, etc. The wheel can zoom in 10 or 1 percent steps. It supports 15 common file types (including animated GIF, which you can see frame by frame) as well as the main RAW formats, and is able to view images directly from compressed files without extracting them. It works on Win XP through W8 (32- and 64-bit) and a portable version is available.
The drawbacks are very few, assuming that the program is sparing in features. There's a thumbnail strip that shows a small preview but it's inside a menu and the design is awkward, as it won't let you click on a thumb to open the image. There are just two editing functions: rotate and resize, both sharing the same panel under the 'Convert' heading. The output conversion can only be saved to JPG or PNG. There's no cropping whatsoever nor a desirable TIF output that would be really handy to save the program's nice rendition of RAW files. When you are browsing, any eventual rotation is just temporary, but if you use the rotation commands, whatever pics you display after that will appear rotated, a peculiar all-or-nothing approach. Anyway, you can always set the preferences to autorotate based on EXIF info.
During some past years of writing for Gizmo's Freeware I was reluctant to include Picasa here because I (still) think the main program isn't actually a good viewer. Many times I was asked why and I gave a lot of reasons. But then one day (thanks to our reader Kurt B) I discovered Picasa contains a separate picture viewer that can be used as an independent program. And it's quite good, so I had to change my mind. It's nice, fast and simple, and in this respect it could be considered as an ideal replacement for the default Windows' photo viewer. It doesn't provide a lot of features by itself, but it can be combined with the main sibling app to obtain good functionality when it comes to editing and the rest of the many features that it offers. It reads a lot of formats (including RAW and PSD), wheel zooming and panning are smooth and its image quality is excellent. The rendition of RAW files is one of the best I've seen, although many times one would prefer to be able to check out the embedded JPG for an idea of the behavior of the camera.
There are just a couple of "major" cons I can find with Picasa. One is the fact that the image is always smoothed when viewed at close zoom levels exceeding 100% and the individual pixels aren't shown: this isn't good if you want to appreciate the real quality of an image when inspecting it for artifacts such as the ones that often appear in JPG pics. The other inconvenience is that Picasa doesn't make it really clear you can use this viewer separately, and subsequently you could think that you'd have to make do with the one in the main program, which isn't half as good. I apologize because that's exactly what happened to me for quite a long time.
One of our anonymous users suggested cam2pc and, after giving it a try, it has proved to be an excellent program in many aspects. As the name suggests, cam2pc provides a handy way to download pictures and videos from your digicam to your drives, allowing you to use lots of options for renaming, saving, etc., and has specific support for the widely used Canon EOS cameras (separate download). The interface is intuitive and easy to use, with a folder and thumbnail view that recalls FastStone. As with this, I recommend to turn the preview panel off, though thumbnail generation is really fast. Actually, speed is outstanding in almost every aspect of this app. The feature that impressed me most was its ability to quickly display LZW-compressed TIFs, something unusual in its competitors, although these perform better with Photoshop PSDs.
The only reason why I don't include cam2pc along with the top programs is that the freeware version lacks quite a lot of features that can only be found in its commercial sibling and which the others offer for free. But I guess most users could perfectly do without those.
Imagine is a very fast viewer vaguely resembling Irfan in its simplistic interface, though the number of features is far more reduced. Wheel zooming also needs pressing the Ctrl key. Several instances of the program can be open at the same time, it lets you customize various mouse modes with different configurations and select any of them instantaneously to fit your workflow, allows frame extraction from animations, reads inside zip, rar and 7z archives, has multilanguage support and is portable.
On the downside, it's quite limited in other areas; for instance, the editing and batch processing options. No RAW or video formats are supported. Sometimes a few Photoshop PSD files can't be read and an 'out of memory' message appears when trying to open them, irrespective of their size and my lots of free RAM and processing power. But the app is an AWSOME performer with the PSDs that load properly and displays them nearly instantaneously, once the thumbnail has been generated. This is something I haven't seen in any other free viewer, and only one or two commercial programs can boast similar results!
Picture Information Extractor Free (PIE) comes to this article after Panzer's suggestion and because it has nearly everything I think a viewer must have. Anyway, the developers insist mainly on the ability to visualize all the metadata embedded in pictures, which is undoubtedly another way of viewing them. EXIF, IPTC, XMP, keywords and other data are conveniently shown on a pane to the right of the screen when a file is selected. The main interface also displays a folder tree with a preview pane and the files can be sorted in various types of lists or thumbnails. The features include wheel zooming in fullscreen view, custom thumbnail size, powerful search, excellent import options, wonderful renaming capabilities, it reads RAW and PSD formats, deletes RAW+JPG files with one click, supports color management and has good image quality. As an outstanding plus, PIE is one of the very few programs that can rotate RAW files permanently and for some users this feature alone would make it worth the installation.
On the other side, this free version of PIE cannot save any changes to the metadata, which is the only cut compared to the commercial one, but quite significant. There are also a couple of flaws in important areas such as speed or zoom. No problem when you're surfing through average JPGs, TIFs, etc., but it takes some time to even change directories and access a folder full of big RAWs, and then another while to display each file in full screen. The zoom can't reach pixel level and, along with pan, it's a bit sloppy. Moreover, the wheel turn for zooming in or out works in the opposite way to the rest of viewers I've tried so far. I miss animated GIF support as well. But many users won't even notice these drawbacks.
Pictomio is a good representative of the recent trends in this category, which pay greater attention to "fancy" interfaces and presentations to improve user experience. The main drawback with this is the usually high resource consumption and graphics card requirements, and the program is no exception, as it uses DirectX hardware acceleration. I'd say it is mainly geared to organizing, with a great number of options for tagging, metadata editing, rating and grouping, but it performs very well as a viewer, too. It's really fast once the thumbnail indexing has finished and displays an image preview instantly, and you can zoom in and out to any level. It supports some video formats as well. The interface is really nice and its many tabs show a lot of information.
Pictomio, however, is not intended to edit and there are no options for this other than lossless rotation. There's no support for RAW, PSD or animated GIF formats either. Moreover, indexing should be faster and it fails to generate a thumbnail for some really big files, but the picture is displayed perfectly if you click on its blank rectangle.
Although their names look nearly identical, Imagina has nothing to do with Imagine, reviewed above. Actually, that's where similarities end. This application ('a next-generation image viewer and editing tool', the developers claim) is a perfect example of the new concepts based around 3-D technology, but much lighter on resources than Pictomio and others of this kind. Browsing speed isn't as fast either, even compared to "normal" viewers, and this is especially noticeable with bigger files. For instance, when opening my EOS 7D's 18-megapixel JPGs the program clearly stays behind the top performers, though this should mean no issue for average users, as their files will be half that size or less, typically.
There may be some things I really miss (more customization for certain basic aspects, a built-in folder tree, support for PSDs, more straightforward management of some files like TIFF, etc.) and many other reasons why my workflow as a photographer won't (yet) fit what Imagina proposes at this seemingly early stage in its development. But photo pros are only a few among the vast lot of digicam users who just shoot JPG. And these will love it! I do love it too, believe it or not. Its absolutely outstanding features have captivated me. User experience is excellent and no other viewer I've seen shows that image quality or that zoom and pan smoothness. Both 2-D and 3-D graphics are amazing and even videos can be watched in this environment (with zooming and panning!). It offers state-of-the-art RAW support by using David Coffin's DCRAW along with its own algorithms, top quality editing functions, real color management and some useful tools, like the 'straighten picture along a line' that many users have been craving for. So many good things make it at least a must-try. (Requires .NET 3.0 or higher)
After some debate in the comments section I've decided to mention FastPictureViewer, but just because of one single feature. This claims to be (and probably is) the fastest viewer ever, especially indicated for quick browsing and culling. Like Pictomio, it uses hardware to speed things up and requires a lot of system resources and graphic capabilities. It has a nice interface as well. Anyway, the program offers very few functions once the initial trial period expires and actually becomes limited to viewing JPGs and not much more than screening and tagging. It does support full color space awareness, though, and the unbeatable speed is a very strong argument in its favor.
Finally, one of our site users, Mythril, suggested two programs which work with a very different approach, but with a special focus on speed. These are Vjpeg and Osiva. I just quote Mythril's comments because they are right on spot (original 06/02/09): "Both work by opening images in a borderless window that you can drag around and zoom in/out at will, practically without any lag, and you can open as many images as you want at the same time. Both programs load very quickly, but don't have any features to speak of. Another drawback is that there doesn't even seem to be a way to cycle through images in a directory... Osiva is slightly better in that you can easily drag and drop a bunch of images and have it open all of them for a superquick overview". I'll add they support very few file formats and are a bit awkward to use, but Vpej and Osiva are quite different from what I had seen so far.
Another reader, Bziur, also put forward First Impression, which works in a similar way without an apparent interface, just by using right-click menus and offering pretty much what the name of the program suggests.
This impressive entry in the Wikipedia features a chart comparing a considerable amount of free and commercial image viewers. Most of these products are also given detailed individual entries and include links to their websites.
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Zoner Photo Studio Free
Zoner installer offers two types of activation: paid or trial versions. To get the free one, initiate the trial and then go to the 'Log in' menu > select 'Free' and then 'Activate'. The download link on Zoner's site goes to Cnet, which may use wrapped installers although that is not the case for the version downloaded here.
FastStone Image Viewer
Multi-monitor support. The first download link on FastStone's official site goes to Cnet, which sometimes uses wrapped installers. Some alternatives can be found by clicking on any of the other links on the same page, although they are slower.
Nomacs - Image Lounge