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Introduction

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.

Thus, many imaging applications overlap categories and we have a perfect example in photo organizers, where a viewer is obviously needed to manage albums and the like. Therefore, the differences for this review should be based mainly on the aspects of loading speed, zooming capabilities, batch processing options and other operations not directly related to image editing, tagging or organizing, although this is a definite advantage in some cases like the current Top Pick.

JPG is the most widely used format today because of its quality/size ratio and is supported by every viewer I know of. Though it is quite old and others seem to do the job much better, it has managed to prevail overwhelmingly, both online and in digicams. But there's a steadily increasing amount of people who shoot RAW in their quest for better image quality. Pity that all camera manufacturers use their proprietary RAW formats, of course not supported by the others. Then, after being processed, those files are usually saved as TIF or other lossless formats, including Adobe DNG, Photoshop PSD, etc. Therefore, compatibility is a point which can't be overlooked, as those people will need to view and convert a variety of files without having to open an external editor or the specific software included with the camera.

Note that file size (in bytes) as well as image dimensions (in pixels) all have an influence on speed, and hardware is another important factor. Obviously, the better your machine (especially the graphics card, rather than the processor), the better the performance and loading times.
 

Discussion

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 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! It brings to my mind an inevitable remembrance of ACDSee in many aspects, but this interface looks more attractive to me. Actually, it appears very professional and can even seem a bit daunting 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. It's organized into a manager (a thumbnail view with a folder tree and general information), a fullscreen 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, though the zoom system should be more flexible in full screen. There's a powerful search with many filters, a lot of display options and full shortcut customization. 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 photos by drawing a horizontal line. Apart from this one, the editor has a variety of tools like a handy clone stamp, a funny morph mesh and great effects you can apply on selected areas. You can also organize into albums, geotag, build calendars, stitch panoramas, make 3D pictures and a lot of other things. Moreover, it reads many formats, including RAW, and writes to the ten most commonly used. It doesn't support video from within the program but can call your default player when needed. There's just one important caveat: batch processing options are completely missing, except for renaming, but if one can do without them, Photo Studio is perfect for the needs of average users.

XnView Tumbnail ViewXnView 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 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 in 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 champion.

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 outdated to me. But, obviously, this program is a real winner.

FastStone Thumbnail and Preview windowMy fourth 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 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, 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, great slideshow capabilities and now GPS location with Google Earth. Much to like here.

These three programs also support basic video viewing for the most common formats. A long comparative review of FastStone and XnView with my own trials can be found on the last page of the comments section below (04/27/2008).

WildBit Thumbnail View I can recommend another program, after most of my initial objections were overcome by the evidence and the author, who 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. In spite of some minor concerns about speed, 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 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 around 70 formats (no video) and runs on Windows 98SE through W7. From version 5.4 on, it includes thumbnail generation for RAW files, aspect ratio information and other improvements. WildBit Viewer is a very competent alternative.

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Related Products and Links
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, but please don't hesitate to submit any product you think might deserve a try. There are some decent ones and even Windows' built-in viewer performs acceptably when browsing through average images, although it's very limited. Anyway, all of my working PCs run Windows XP, though I have tried Vista's capabilities for the matter on several other machines and things don't seem to have improved much. I don't know about Windows7 yet. 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 our 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. 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.
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, because it doesn't use hardware acceleration, as far as I know. Thus, 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. Well, just in case it's not clear, I have no connection at all with the developers. It's obvious I like Imagina but, as you can see, it hasn't reached a place at the top. It might one day, though, if the already good work keeps improving and the drawbacks I mentioned above are ironed out. They are very near. (Requires .NET 2.0 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 no other functions and is limited to just viewing, and the free version supports JPGs only. It does support full color space awareness, though, and there's also a standalone codec package that allows functionality for 20 RAW formats from the most important camera manufacturers under 32/64bit Vista or Windows 7 and provides thumbnail view for XP.
 
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.
 
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.
 

Best Free Digital Photo Organizer
Best Free Digital Editor
Best Free Media Player

Quick Selection Guide

Zoner Photo Studio Free    Rating 10 of 10    Gizmo's Top
                        Pick

Pros   Nice interface, very customizable, fast, lots of features, good editor, geotagging
Cons   No batch processing options
Developer Home Page   http://free.zoner.com
Download link   http://free.zoner.com/download.asp
File Size   20MB   Version 12  License Type Private Freeware (not free for commercial use)   Installation Requirements Windows XP - W7

XnView Rating
                        10 of 10

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   4.36MB   Version 1.97.3   License Type Private Freeware (not free for commercial use)   Installation Requirements All Windows, MacOS X, Linux x86, Linux ppc, FreeBSD x86, OpenBSD x86, NetBSD x86, Solaris sparc, Solaris x86, Irix mips, HP-UX, AIX
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   1.28MB   Version 4.25   License Type Private Freeware (not free for commercial use)   Installation Requirements Windows9x - W7
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, GPS location in Google Earth
Cons   Slower for larger files
Developer Home Page   http://www.faststone.org
Download link   http://www.faststone.org/FSViewerDownload.htm
File Size   5MB   Version 4.2  License Type Private Freeware (not free for commercial use)   Installation Requirements Windows98 - W7
Portable version available   Portable version available
Info   Supports dual-monitor configurations

WildBit Viewer    Rating 9 of 10

Pros   Very manageable, excellent editor, geotagging capabilities
Cons   Slower than the three above sometimes, no video support
Developer Home Page   http://www.wildbit-soft.fi/software.html
Download link   http://www.wildbit-soft.fi/software.html
File Size   6.6MB   Version 5.6 (5.7 alpha 4.0 available)  License Type Private Freeware (not free for commercial use)   Installation Requirements Windows98SE - W7
Info   Multi-monitor support

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

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