Best Free Non-Adobe PDF Reader

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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.
2000/XP/2003 Server/Vista/7
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

 
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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

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Comments

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 23. March 2014 - 11:33  (115224)

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

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.

by naren on 22. October 2013 - 16:01  (111673)

PDFXchange Editor Free & Paid Full version released today.
http://www.tracker-software.com/company/news_press_events/view/131

by jdefgts on 22. October 2013 - 23:19  (111679)

I briefly took a look at the newly released PDF-XChange Editor Free version. In my cursory view, it seems to add little in the way of free features that are not currently found in the PDF-XChange Viewer.

There is one major difference between the two products that I found a bit annoying. In the free version of the viewer, menu choices that are fully functional only in the Pro version are clearly labeled as such on the drop down menu. On the free version of the editor there is no warning label. As a result, when using the free editor, the user can go through a number of steps in a complex process (such as combining two files) before receiving a warning that the finished product will contain a "Demo" label unless the user purchases the full version.

If I discover additional differences that are an improvement over the free viewer, I will include it in these comments.

by naren on 23. October 2013 - 13:01  (111694)

And neither manual nor autoupdate is there in PDFXchange Editor.

According to their forum, a new build is to be released soon. Dont know what fixes/new wil be there.

by CyberWolf64 on 20. October 2013 - 12:14  (111608)

Well, according to my reading some of the responses here, I still support Foxit as NUMBER 1.
Why?
Very easy. I also use its PDF Printer (creates PDFs) and it is the only viewer/creator combo that DOES NOT PUT WATERMARKS on the PDF I create.
That 1 trait is why I DO NOT support the "free" version of PDF-Xchange at all.
Foxit give a well rounded product for my needs, and like I stated above, it does so without TAMPERING with the PDF output. Yes, I consider adding a watermark tampering. Unless I am the one adding a watermark.

by naren on 23. October 2013 - 16:26  (111700)

Does Foxit free allows to convert pdf to word or excel?

by jdefgts on 23. October 2013 - 17:00  (111702)

Foxit does not provide that conversion capability. Gizmo's recommendation for Best Free PDF Tools (http://www.techsupportalert.com/content/best-free-pdf-tools.htm) suggests the free online conversion tools offered by Nitro for Word (http://www.pdftoword.com/) and Excel (http://www.pdftoexcelonline.com/default.aspx).

by naren on 21. October 2013 - 11:10  (111635)

I think Nitro PDF Free also has create/edit without watermarks, m I right?

Foxit free doesn't have password protection, right?

PDFXchange Editor Free Final version is going to be released today i.e Oct 21, 2013. Lets see what changes/new features it brings. This Free Editor/Viewer combo is going to replace Free Viewer i.e no further fixes/updates to Viewer.

by CyberWolf64 on 21. October 2013 - 12:01  (111636)

Just went to Nitro's site. The product no longer appears to be free. They have Nitro PDF Pro, and when you get that, you get a 14 day trial.
So, as far as I was able to see, since it isn't free, it doesn't rate.

by MidnightCowboy on 21. October 2013 - 12:08  (111637)

The freeware version of Nitro is also available from other sources. MC - Site Manager.

http://www.softpedia.com/get/Office-tools/PDF/Nitro-PDF-Reader.shtml
http://www.majorgeeks.com/files/details/nitro_pdf_reader.html

by mr6n8 on 21. October 2013 - 13:47  (111641)

Apparently Nitro has a separate website address for the free reader - I have no idea if it does what CyberWolf64 is looking for:
http://www.nitroreader.com/

by naren on 6. October 2013 - 11:13  (111274)

Which free PDF readers has create/edit functions without any probs i.e no demo labels or some kind of marks or unwanted trial software watermarks on the PDF?

by fbales on 2. October 2013 - 9:47  (111171)

I use PDFs extensively for personal study, so I like to mark up the documents I'm reading. I currently use xxxxx on my Android tablet, and it is very good. I am soon going to buy a Windows 8 tablet and what I would like to know is which PDF reader for Windows responds best to a touch interface.

by Liament on 26. August 2013 - 19:43  (110331)

I was user of foxit reader until it failed at "restore last view setting". it happened before 1+ year ago.

lol, foxit reader still has same bug in 08-XX-2013:
http://forums.foxitsoftware.com/forum/portable-document-format-pdf-tools...
http://i57.fastpic.ru/big/2013/0826/03/083c723167041f2b025e0dce00008203.png

by 3rdgear on 13. July 2013 - 16:09  (109200)

Well Gizmo's decision to announce his avoidance to Foxit Reader due to the "ask" toolbar and added software being unavoidable must have worked. I just downloaded it (Foxit) and there was NO software added. I think Foxit got the message Gizmo. Ya dun gud.

by jdefgts on 13. July 2013 - 17:01  (109201)

Thanks for the heads up! I just downloaded and installed the latest version and no "Ask" toolbar. I'll be revising the review as soon as I have the opportunity to investigate any other recent changes.

by Panzer on 10. June 2013 - 9:26  (108435)

Qiqqa Free - Essential software for PDF and research management:

Features:

- Powerful PDF viewing, annotating, management (Top-notch built-in PDF reader with annotating, highlighting, automated jump links, tablet sync, and so much more.)
- Unique tools to reference, understand, discover
- Save time and produce better work

http://www.qiqqa.com/

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