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Introduction

This is one of those software categories where the quantity and quality of free programs is at least equal to that of commercial ones, so the selection isn't easy, and personal convenience will unavoidably appear as a main factor for this review.

And there's also the question of what exactly we mean by an "image viewer". With so many contenders that offer loads of features like editing, filtering, batch processing, organizing, publishing and the rest, that name may be a bit too restrictive, as we always tend to demand some additional editing features apart from the basic viewing and browsing functions (these are sine qua non, in my opinion). Thus many imaging applications overlap categories, and the differences for our review should be based mainly on the aspects of access speed, zooming capabilities, and other tasks not directly related to extensive image editing. Though I know many users will prefer all-in-one programs, I feel they don't fit into this category, and feature bloat precludes their recommendation.

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Discussion

IrfanView thumbnail moduleOne of the best choices is the classic IrfanView. Irfan is a first-class product, but one for which I have mixed feelings. It's an amazingly capable application and quite fast at displaying images, something I consider essential for a viewer. It offers plenty of functions for editing, converting, batch processing, slideshow exporting, etc. and supports almost any graphics plug-in. Some of the features (its resizing algorithm, for instance) are outstanding and even rank above a big fish like Photoshop. But, although many users just love it, it just doesn't work the way I'm used to. It's quite simplistic, but not really intuitive and the interface has been almost the same since early versions. As a personal "inconvenience" I'll say wheel zooming requires a press of the Ctrl key, and I don't see the point in having a separate module for thumbnails. This, however, may be exactly what others prefer, and the same applies to the interface, which looks a bit too simple to me. But, obviously, this program is a real winner.

XnView thumbnail and preview windowA product I feel more comfortable with is XnView. Like Irfan, it's very versatile; it can read and display nearly 400 types of graphic files, and convert any of these to more than 50 formats. It displays images very quickly, and these may be viewed full screen, as slideshows or as thumbnails. 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 from a batch file, which is ideal for converting or processing multiple images with custom adjustments, and 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). 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. It supports drag and drop, lots of plug-ins, is available in 44 languages and has full cross-platform support, including Mac and Linux (unlike its competitors reviewed here). A heavyweight.

FastStone thumbnail and preview windowMy third choice is FastStone Image Viewer. There are various reasons to choose this, but the main one is its superb interface, especially in full screen mode, with different pop-up panels appearing when the mouse pointer reaches any side of the screen. You can easily access every function of the program (one at a time, of course) 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. The zoom system is very clever, too. It magnifies to a custom preset level with just one click, and "average-user" files are displayed quickly, the same as their thumbnails; but it's slower showing bigger files (>20MB, depending on the format and resolution) and both Irfan and XnView perform much better in this field, though for most users that won't be an issue. It may be a good idea to disable the preview panel in the thumbnail window to speed things up. It also supports all major graphic formats and popular digital camera RAW formats as well, and offers good basic image editing facilities, an excellent cropping module, full batch processing options and great slideshow capabilities. Much to like here.

FastStone has a "little brother" called FastStone MaxView which is essentially the same program, but it's limited to the viewer and a few features.

All the three programs reviewed support basic video viewing for the most common formats.

A long comparative review of FastStone and XnView with my own trials can be found in the comments section below (04/27/2008).
 
I've tested quite a few other applications (too many to be mentioned), but none of them made it to the top. That includes all of those suggested by readers. When this was the case, I usually replied with a post in the comments section with my reasons. Maybe your favorite program is among them. There are some decent ones and even Windows' built-in viewer performs acceptably when browsing through average images, although it's very limited. Anyway, my OS is XP, so I haven't tried Vista's capabilities for the matter. But it wouldn't be fair to end this review without mentioning some other freebies that offer a few remarkable features. (Thanks to those anonymous visitors for letting me know.)
 
One of them is Imagine, a very fast viewer vaguely resembling Irfan in its simplistic interface. Similarly, wheel zooming needs pressing the Ctrl key and the program also uses a separate window for thumbnails, but Imagine adds more functionality for people who like it this way and several thumbnail windows can be open at the same time. Besides, 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 a lot of formats, has multilanguage support and is portable. On the downside, it's quite limited in other areas. To name but a few, the editing and batch processing options are insufficient (I haven't been able to find a cropping feature!), certain Photoshop PSD files aren't properly displayed, no RAW or video formats are supported and it doesn't keep a database, so the thumbnails have to be generated again every time you visit a folder, although it's quite fast at doing this. (The download link at the author's site seems to have a problem, so clic this one if you want to have a try.

ALTools offer some interesting freeware utilities, including
ALSee picture viewer. This one is fast, folks. And that's just about the most important feature a viewer should provide. Actually, it's probably the fastest of the ones reviewed so far when it comes to displaying any of the 24 supported formats, and this reason alone makes it worth appearing here. Thumbnail generation takes a little longer than in other apps, but once the images are in the database you can view and browse at blazing speed. And that includes even several-hundred-MB multilayered PSDs! The interface is clean and neatly designed, and although the icons might not be to everyone's taste, the functions are very easy to use. The drawbacks are a few, however: no wheel zooming, limited customization, very few batch processing options, no RAW or video support, and it writes to just 5 formats (JPG, BMP, GIF, PCX and TIF; I really miss PNG, among others), though the new ALSee 5.3 beta 1 has improved a tad and seems to be even faster.
 
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 geared towards editing and there are no options for this other than lossless rotation. There's no support either for RAW, PSD or animated GIF formats. 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.
Finally, 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 no other functions and is limited to just viewing, and the free version supports JPGs only.

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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Related Products and Links
Best Free Digital Photo Organizer
Best Free Digital Editor
Best Free Media Player

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Quick Selection Guide

XnView    Rating 10 of 10  Gizmo's Top Pick

Pros   Fast, lots of features, very manageable, many plug-ins, supports nearly any OS
Cons   The batch processing options could be better implemented.
Developer Home Page   http://www.xnview.com/
Download link   http://pagesperso-orange.fr/pierre.g/xnview/endownloadwin32.html
File Size   5MB   Version 1.95.3   License Type Private Freeware (not free for commercial use)   Installation Requirements
Portable version available   Portable version available
Info   Supports dual-monitor configurations.

IrfanView    Rating 9 of 10  

Pros   Fast, lots of features, many plug-ins
Cons   Simplistic and a bit less manageable
Developer Home Page   http://www.irfanview.com/
Download link   http://www.irfanview.com/
File Size   1.25MB   Version 4.20   License Type Private Freeware (not free for commercial use)   Installation Requirements
Portable version available   Portable version available
Info   Supports dual-monitor configurations

FastStone Image Viewer    Rating 9 of 10

Pros   Very nice interface, good functionality, excellent batch processing options
Cons   Slower for larger files
Developer Home Page   http://www.faststone.org
Download link   http://www.faststone.org/FSViewerDownload.htm
File Size   4MB   Version 3.6   License Type Private Freeware (not free for commercial use)   Installation Requirements
64 Bit version available   64 Bit version available   Portable version available Portable version available
Info   Supports dual-monitor configurations

{C} This software category is maintained by volunteer editor Marc Darkin. Registered site visitors can contact Marc by clicking here.

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