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.
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.

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.
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.

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.
 

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

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Comments

I ditched Foxit Reader off all my computers here. Their darn software update shoves their Foxit Cloud service on the computers here. I uninstalled it and it shows up after each update to their PDF reader. There is no way of bypassing the installation of FoxIt Cloud either.

Snowbound, if you still like Foxit, I suggest you try the portable version from portable apps. I haven't seen anything about a cloud service in it. I just googled Foxit cloud service and saw a link that saids that you sign up for it. Anyway, the Foxit portable version works great. Nothing gets bundled.

Bo

I opened the same PDF art book in Foxit, PDF-XChange Viewer, and Sumatra PDF. All are the portable editions and the latest version. Stats were as follows:

Memory
Foxit Reader 32,860 KB
PDF-XChange 19,436 KB
Sumatra 6,276 KB

Hard Drive Space
Foxit Reader 133.0 MB
PDF-XChange 20.0 MB
Sumatra 6.17 MB

I plan on deleting Foxit shortly. Its interface is more appealing, but it has become bloated in recent years and doesn't do anything out of the ordinary to justify the much larger footprint. PDF-XChange is my default reader and I use Sumatra for epub, mobi, and the occasional comic book download.

Posted on behalf of member: sicknero. With Sumatra (portable) I get between 24 and 45 meg with a PDF open. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/...-30_133128.jpg With Sumatra idle I get about 12 meg but it can drop to less than a meg if I run System Explorer's "Process Memory Usage Cleanup". Not normally something I'd bother with, I just tried it out of interest. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/...-30_133421.jpg https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/...-30_134340.jpg I haven't tested PDF XChange and it's years since I last used Foxit.
That is very interesting. :) As I've only used PDF-XChange, I'm interested to get any insights you have that explain why the differences are so large? I expect that most of the differences are due to each application's feature-set (memory) and the support for PDF features (memory and disk). But the Foxit file size is still a magnitude different. Also, this 2013 dotTech review, Windows Best free PDF reader — Adobe Reader vs Foxit Reader vs PDF-XChange Viewer vs Nitro PDF Reader vs Sumatra PDF compares the same products but comes up with different memory usage - maybe they misplaced a decimal point when recording the Sumatra memory usage. What do you think?
Thank you for sharing your experiences Baroque and Blue which I'm sure will benefit others interested in this software category. MC - Site Manager.

Foxit apparently installed a McAfee Security Scan tool onto my PC without asking for permission, as it popped up asking to update a short while after I downloaded Foxit and I hadn't made any other changes to my PC. It was easy enough to uninstall, but still, makes me wonder what else they are willing to do.

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.

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!

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/

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?

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.

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. ;-)

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.

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

@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.

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!

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?

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?

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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".

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

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.

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.

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