Best Free Non-Adobe PDF Reader

In a Hurry?
  Go straight to the Quick Selection Guide
 
Introduction

This category includes desktop programs that can be used for reading and annotating PDF documents, other than the slow and bloated Adobe Reader. While I will admit that the Adobe product has improved in both speed and features in recent years, it still lags behind the products that are reviewed here.

Picking the best software in this, or any category is a perilous task. Each user has his or her own needs and preferences that figure into the determination of "best in show".

My personal criteria for evaluating this software include the following factors

  • Ability to open PDF files. All PDF files are not created equal. I assembled a set of about a dozen test files using various combinations of size, security, and form and image content. These are typical files used in both office and recreational computing, the kind of PDF files that most people want to read. I do note that none of the programs reviewed were able to were able to render an Adobe 3D image test file correctly. With the exception of this 3D file, If a reader was unable to open any of the test files, it was eliminated from consideration.
  • Speed of opening files. While a second or two difference in opening files doesn't make too much difference to me, delays beyond a few seconds tend to annoy me.
  • The graphical user interface (GUI).  While I do have a bias toward programs that are aesthetically pleasing, ease of use is also important in the GUI evaluation.
  • The document reading experience. This factor includes how intuitively the program operates, the speed of rendering text and images, and the navigation controls.
  • The tools for annotiation. One important aspect of PDF readers for me is the ability to markup, comment on and include drawing elements in a PDF and to save the document with the alterations but without unwanted trial software watermarks.
  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This ability to convert a scanned or imaged PDF to a computer readable text and save the converted document is an important feature. This makes the text within the document both searchable and able to be copied. Unfortunately only one of our choices contains this feature. Read on to find which one. 
  • The installation process. In addition to judging the ease of installation, There is an unfortunate trend of including undesirable or even harmful software and system settings changes as a part of the software installation.

One limitation of the testing process was that the software was not tested under Windows 8.

 
Discussion

In my examination of most of the available free PDF readers two stood out from all the rest for their extensive capabilities to view and comment on PDF files.

PDF-XChange Viewer

This full featured workhorse remains the top choice in this category. With the exception of the 3D files mentioned above. It was able to quickly open and accurately render all of the files in my test set of PDF files. Pages can be zoomed or rotated and can be exported in various image formats. When multiple documents are loaded, the tiled window interface allows opening either in document tabs or side-by-side comparison of files, with the additional option to view them in document tabs.

Beyond its viewing capabilities, PDF-XChange has an extensive suite of tools for form annotating and bookmarking PDF documents. This extensive commenting capability includes many drawing tools, including the option to add a grid for precision. Comments can also be hidden, exported or imported. PDF-XChange has the ability to encrypt documents as well as managing document security and properties. Controls are easily accessible and easy to use. Unlike some other readers, PDF-XChange lacks the ability to add digital or electronic signatures.

An important part of the reading experience for me is the ablility to search the text contained in the file. As a result, the one feature that makes PDF-XChange stand out from the other PDF readers is its ability to convert and save a scanned or imaged PDF document to one containing searchable text. The OCR process allows the converted document to be indexed and searched. I use the free version of Evernote extensively. It does not index scanned image based PDFs but can index them once they have been OCRed, making this function important to me.

With all of its solid qualities this proven software is starting to show its age. While there is an wide range of features for customizing the graphical user interface (GUI), no amount of tinkering can remove its dated Windows XP look and feel. With the level of features and sophistication of the contents of the package, some modernization of the interface is in order.

Unfortunately, the installation package installs the Tracker Ask browser toolbar by default. Users should use care in the installation process and most will opt out of the default to avoid including this annoying additional software.
 

Foxit ReaderFoxit Reader

A worthy contender in this category is Foxit Reader, particularly if you do not need OCR capability. The software was able to open and accurately render the same files, perhaps a tad faster than PDF-XChange. It contains similar features for viewing and navigating documents, while adding the ability to read documents aloud. When multiple documents are opened they are loaded in tabs to allow easy switching between them.

While other software in this category has been relatively static in its development, Foxit has been keeping in step with the state of both the computing and business worlds. Foxit most recent release offers both a "classic" and  a "ribbon" interface that provides a modern look and feel to the software. The ribbon is similar to that included in the Microsoft Office toolbar. While I had a bit of trouble finding the cotrols for settiing and changing the format of annotations, I generally had the sense that the features for navigation and editing well organized, smooth and, for the most part, intuitive.

The array of annotation tools were as impressive as those in the PDF-XChange reader. The user will be able to fill forms and fully annotate documents and save them as we should expect. Foxit includes some unique controls that permit adding images and multimedia files as well as attaching other files. The reader contains some interesting collaboration and social media features that provide interfaces with Evernote, Facebook, Twitter and  SharePoint. Additionally Foxit provides for both electronically signing documents using the commercial DocuSign service and validating electronically signed PDF files. While Foxit can open encrypted files, regretably absent is the abillity to add and alter file security.

Caution! Foxit is bundled with a variety of unwanted components that will attempt to install toolbars and change your system settings. The exact nature of these unwanted components is changed regularly. Users need to take great care during the installation process to avoid these unwanted items. See our information page on this subject here.

In its latest version Foxit has added a multifaceted PDF creation facility, which may be of interest for some.

 

Sumatra PSumatra PDF ReaderDF Viewer

If all you are really looking for in a PDF reader is the ability to view and print a PDF file,  Sumatra may be for you. It's a little short on features, and it has some limitations in rendering images, but it does have plenty of viewing options. No editing or annotations though.

 

 

 
Related Products and Links
 
Quick Selection Guide

PDF-XChange Viewer
5
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Loads reasonably fast; can print PDFs; extensive annotation without watermarking; allows filling and saving of Adobe PDF forms; can extract text and images, magnify text, manage document properties and security; Can OCR image based PDF documents.
Somewhat dated interface, users must opt out of installing Tracker browser toolbar.
http://www.tracker-software.com/
2.5.213.1
16.0 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Feature limited freeware
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Windows XP and later
Foxit Reader
4
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Fast, modern user interface, can fill and save both forms and form data, provides extensive annotation and review features. Social media interface. Can insert and validate electronic signatures.
No OCR capability. Users need to take great care during the install process to avoid a variety of unwanted components and system changes, the make-up of which is changed regularly. User manual must be downloaded separately.
http://www.foxitsoftware.com/
6.1.2.1224
31.8 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Feature limited freeware
A portable version of this product is available but not from the developer.
Windows XP to 8, Linux (Foxit Reader 1.1 for Desktop Linux)
Sumatra PDF Viewer
3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Small, fast, source code available.
Few features - it's basically just a viewer, image quality is not the best.
2.4
4.0 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Open source freeware
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Windows XP/ Vista/7/8

 

Editor

This software review is copy-edited by Jojo Yee. Please help edit and improve this article by clicking here.

 
Tags

best free pdf reader, top free pdf reader, read pdf files, pdf viewer, best free pdf viewer, top free pdf viewer, annotate pdf, add comments to pdf

Back to the top of the article.

 

Share this
4.415965
Average: 4.4 (238 votes)
Your rating: None

Comments

by Sanpo on 24. July 2014 - 18:28  (117553)

Because you compare old PDF-Viewer and new Foxit, yes? If you try Pdf-XChange Editor,you can see that the quality is much better in favour of Editor.

by Peter Pan on 23. July 2014 - 18:06  (117522)

When comparing different PDF viewers it is very important to compare the visibility (quality) of the PDF on the screen, not only the functions and speed. This is NOT being done in the review, nor in the comments.

I compared both Foxit Reader and PDF X-change Viewer and they are quite different. I compared text, as text shows best how the rendering qualities of the products are::
- at 800% the text in both viewers is presented on the screen at about the same quality.
- at about 100% there is a visible better representation of Foxit over PDF X-change - in PDF Foxit the text is much sharper as in PDF X-change!

As reading text is the hard part for our eyes I would happily recommend Foxit over PDF X-change!

by sicknero on 28. June 2014 - 8:31  (116983)

I just wanted to mention SlimPDF which I discovered yesterday. It's the fastest and lightest reader I've yet seen and has only the most minimal controls and options. Just read/print, nothing else. I was previously using Sumatra as a quick viewer but I've found that it isn't great at printing, while SlimPDF manages perfectly.

I wanted an alternative to the built-in Firefox viewer (I've had frequent problems with that) without having to use a full-featured program as the default viewer, and Slim seems to fit the bill very well.

The download is an installer (no bundling that I could discover) but I just extracted that and ran it portably with no problems.

http://www.investintech.com/resources/freetools/slimpdfreader/

by Joe A.TT on 28. June 2014 - 12:03  (116991)

Hi sicknero,

Thanks for this. I'd like to give it a try. Can you provide some more details? Which program did you extract it with? Was it Universal Extractor? Did you have to delete any files or folders after extracting? Did you have to create any files, e.g. an ini file?

by sicknero on 28. June 2014 - 19:50  (116996)

Hi Joe. Actually after some more testing, SlimPDF does have problems ... for instance I have a collection of classic literature scanned to pdf and Slim really struggles to load these and then fails to display them properly. However, the purpose I originally wanted it for (printing large, text-only pdfs from the internet at work) it seems to do very well so I'll probably keep it for that. I did do a proper install to see if that would fix the problems it was having but it makes no difference.

Anyway if you want to try it, yes you can just put it through Universal Extractor which will give you three folders - {app}, {cf32}, embedded, and a file named install_script.iss. I just copied all the files from {app} into another folder on the drive where I keep all my portables. {cf32} contains a file called itech.dll ... no idea what that's for but the prog seems to work fine without it.

As far as I can tell it makes no changes in appdata but it does create a registry key (HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Investintech.com Inc.)which holds recently opened file paths and a subkey for settings, although it's written nothing in that so far.

by Joe A.TT on 28. June 2014 - 22:05  (116998)

Thanks for the info. I extracted it with UE too but when testing it failed to display certain text in my test file. Actually, I don't even know how to describe what the problem areas looked like. It was probably some other font, but certainly not text at all.

Thanks for the feedback anyway. ;-)

by sicknero on 28. June 2014 - 22:27  (116999)

It's a curious one for sure :-)

Some files I've tried are several hundred pages of image-heavy scanned books and are displayed perfectly, while others it fails completely with. One book for instance, looks as if the ink was wet and someone's smeared it liberally about with a damp cloth.

In PDF XChange - https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/s/kkushi2ae54e1a1/2014-06-29_00-22-21.png

In SlimPDF - https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/s/tx7ccngz1lybjzk/2014-06-29_00-23-29.png

Very odd :-) Something to do with different types of pdf file perhaps, I don't know anything about that though.

by Joe A.TT on 29. June 2014 - 0:47  (117000)

It's really strange. Nevertheless, I'm wasting any more time with it.

by CyberWolf64 on 5. May 2014 - 12:55  (116044)

@mr6n8:
I finally went to the actual reader site, and from what I have read, it appears that it will do what I need.

And, also appears to NOT install crap or try to install crap like Foxit does, nor does it screw up the PDF output with a bloody watermark like PDF-Xchange does. WHO's IDIOTIC idea was that anyway? I can see "limited functionality", but to actually mess up a created PDF with that? THAT is not the way to win me over that's for sure. Features or not appearance or not, Foxit and PDF-Xchange BOTH have SERIOUS black marks against them. But so far the only "complaint" I have seen about Nitro is about the look of the ribbon bar? Come on.

by musicollector on 3. May 2014 - 20:42  (116020)

I expected PDF-XChange Viewer to be at the top of your list when I started the search for PDF readers, and to no surprise, I see it is!! It is the best one I have ever used, and amazingly, it is free!

I also use the "Typewriter" mode to fill forms, annotate documents, etc. The combination of PDF-XChange Viewer and CutePDF has made my life so, so much, easier!

by shawnz on 1. May 2014 - 18:18  (115992)

I updated PDF xchange viewer to ver 2.5 last June, and the comment tools are not working now. How can I get these working again?

by Joe A.TT on 2. May 2014 - 21:00  (116005)

I don't understand why the comment tools don't work for you. They work fine for me in the latest portable version. Have you tried uninstalling and re-installing?

by shawnz on 3. May 2014 - 21:34  (116022)

Thank you. I must have subconsciously avoided the obvious. Now I have the new version 3 working with the edit tools.

by Jan2311 on 20. April 2014 - 21:27  (115818)

Google Chrome also has an excellent built-in pdf viewer nowadays, which I find very easy to use. It's really quick: almost instantly loads a 70MB (local) file. It has basic functionality (it lacks access to a table of contents as far as I know), but in 9 out of 10 times all I need is this basic functionality. Since Chrome is installed by default on many systems (well, okay, so is Adobe Reader :D ), no extra software is needed.

by Anupam on 21. April 2014 - 7:45  (115821)

This is a category which reviews stand alone pdf readers. Don't think the inbuilt reader in Chrome falls in that category.

by CyberWolf64 on 11. April 2014 - 2:26  (115604)

I too have gone back to Adobe Reader and use PDFCreator to create the PDF. Currently dont use editing of PDF's.

But I found Foxit annoying in that it installs that cloud connection, PDF X-Change really sucks in that YES the "free" version actually put a WATERMARK on EVERY document you create with it.

And Sumatra was not quite as good at display of PDF and yes I agree start screen is ugly.

So, I have gone back. I really wish there was a truly good and truly free, as well as free of wanting to load a bunch of crap onto your system program that does the following:
1. open/read PDF's
2. create PDF's via a virtual printer (and NO GHOSTSCRIPT CRAP).
3. allowed decent annotations of PDF's when needed

Unfortunately there is none of that type of program available.

by sicknero on 21. April 2014 - 13:49  (115823)

The Foxit Cloud thing can be uninstalled separately, it has its own uninstaller that you can run from, for example, Programs and Features in W7.

Sumatra is my favourite for pretty much any document that it supports. Yes it's a little unattractive but you can edit settings.txt to change some of the colours and for speed of loading it's unbeatable in my experience. It's also very handy for looking at ebooks without needing to import them first into some ebook reader's library which is how most of them (Calibre for instance) work.

by sicknero on 23. March 2014 - 11:33  (115224)

Foxit installer now runs the OpenCandy executable "OCSetupHlp.dll"

by acz on 9. May 2014 - 0:12  (116103)

Thanks for pointing out that file.
I was curious to see if it was on my hard drive, and I discovered that there are four copies of a different file with a similar name.
"ocsetup.exe" plus two copise of "ocsetup.exe.mui".

Apparently they are from Microsoft, with the file description
"Windows Optional Component Setup".

by sicknero on 9. May 2014 - 7:28  (116111)

Yes, they are valid Windows files. The Open Candy one runs from temp during the install process and then gets deleted.

by keithc on 17. December 2013 - 0:42  (112990)

I've gone round the houses several times on this and having tried the top three here and several others I reverted to Adobe. Why?
- Foxit is also getting big and bloated these days and Adobe seems at least as fast.
- PDF X-Change, I just found the interface not to my liking. I know this is a personal view, but it's my choice ;)
- Sumatra also has an irritating interface, at least its splash screen is enough to induce migraine. Configuration via a text file is also a little bit too 70s. But the biggest problem I had with it was the sheer size of printouts. One file I wanted to print, of around 100 pages, took around twenty minutes per page on my HP Laserjet, and when I looked at the size of the spool file I could understand why, it was several HUNDRED MB. Adobe, on the other hand, printed as fast as the printer could feed the paper, and the spool file was a similar size to the source doc at a few MB.

by wesnsw on 29. November 2013 - 1:52  (112613)

Be warned Foxit will install a cloud connection

I just installed Foxit Reader 611 and got a free cloud connection. It was installed without questions or options. Then I could find no way of removing it or turning it off.

by mr6n8 on 29. November 2013 - 12:26  (112618)
by wesnsw on 29. November 2013 - 13:05  (112622)

Thank you mr6n8, your suggestion works. I have used Foxit reader for many years for its quick loading and snappy performance.

Actually I didn't have a uninstall entry for it in my control panel but installing Foxit a second time created one so I could do as you link suggests.

by mr6n8 on 29. November 2013 - 13:22  (112623)

Strange the entry was not there until a 2d install, but I am glad to hear it works.

Thanks for getting back as this will help others wanting to disable the Cloud.

by naren on 22. October 2013 - 17:59  (111674)

Reviewer,

Did Nitro PDF Free failed in your test or you didn't test it yet?

by jdefgts on 22. October 2013 - 22:53  (111678)

Nitro was carefully evaluated in preparation for the writing of the full PDF reader review above and, as a result of your post and the recent interest in it, I gave it a second look. While it does provide the standard functionality for a PDF viewer, it just doesn't measure up to either PDF-XChange Viewer or Foxit.

The installation annoyance started at the official download site for the free version of the reader, http://www.nitroreader.com/ which required a name and email address before permitting download of the installer. This seemed a bit intrusive given that it is available without giving up identification data elsewhere. This was compounded by the fact that the installer masked the choices to opt out of setting Nitro as the system default and browser PDF reader behind an optional "configuration" button.

When opening Nitro, the first thing that struck me was that half of the wide toolbar was useless whitespace. While the toolbar can be collapsed, the wasted space when visible limits the real estate available for the real work of displaying the PDF.

For testing all of the reader candidates for inclusion in the review, I've assembled a group of 10 diverse PDF files of varying size, contents and complexity. The rendering of these files convinced me that the conclusion not to recommend Nitro was correct. My impression was that Nitro was generally slower in opening most, if not all of the test files than either PDF-Change or Foxit. Nitro also failed to render files with large graphics with the same clarity and quality as the other readers. In filling out a form containing a variety of different field types, Nitro was the worst performer in properly recognizing and supplying data to the field.

With regard to features, ability to configure, appearance and performance, PDF-XChange and Foxit remain the choices for full featured PDF readers. Sumatra, which is only a simple viewer is clearly smaller and faster and stands as a recommendation for those reasons only.

by fred64 on 8. January 2014 - 21:24  (113490)

I have been using Nitro for about a year. The key selling point for me was its ability to paste my signature into forms. Once I setup my signature (including a password), I have the ability to paste it opaquely with resize into a PDF file anywhere I want. You must provide the password associated before you can paste a signature and once you paste it the document is locked, so make sure all is correct first.

This feature has been a real time saver for completing and submitting forms. Before, I had to print the signature page, then sign it, then reassemble and send.

I also did not like the "ribbon" tool bar, but its easy to collapse and restore, and you can configure the remaining top bar to include any elements you use regularly. I include open, save as, zoom, rotate, sign, find and a few others.

I do not like the Nitro browser plugs, so at install I opt out of them.

Nitro also includes a PDF print capability that works like the Bullzip printer.

Also, you can download it from

http://www.nitroreader.com/download/

If you click the big "download free" button, you will be asked for your email and the downloader will determine if your system is 32 or 64bit then start the appropriate download.

However, lower on the page are links to manually download either the free 32bit version or the free 64 bit version. Those will start the download immediately without asking for an eMail.

by naren on 23. October 2013 - 12:56  (111693)

Thanxx for the info.

by MidnightCowboy on 22. October 2013 - 21:48  (111677)

Please be patient. Our editors will reply to comments as soon as they are able to. Software evaluation takes time as I'm sure you can appreciate. MC - Site Manager.

Gizmo's Freeware is Recruiting!

Gizmos Needs YouShare your knowledge of free software with millions of Gizmo's readers by joining our editing team.  Details here.