Most people don’t stop to think about the PDF reader they install – they just install Adobe Reader. Adobe’s PDF Reader isn’t the only option, though – there are quite a few high-quality, free PDF viewers available for Windows.
The alternative PDF readers run the gamut from minimal, lightweight applications built for nothing more than viewing PDFs to more full-featured applications that include annotations and highlighting. Some applications even include features you won’t find in Adobe Reader, such as easy creation of PDF documents and basic PDF-editing tools.
Built-In PDF Readers
If you’re using Google Chrome, you already have a PDF reader. It’s not feature-packed, but it’s a quick, minimal way to read PDF documents in your browser without installing and launching a separate application. It makes PDFs look like any other web page, aside from a toolbar that appears when you hover your cursor over the document.
Mozilla is working on integrating a built-in PDF reader, known as PDF.js, into Firefox 14, the next version of Firefox that will be released. Firefox should have a built-in PDF reader by Firefox 14 – or, hopefully, Firefox 15 at the latest. Windows 8 also comes with its own PDF reader – PDF readers are becoming more integrated into the browsers and operating systems we use every day, gradually eliminating the need for dedicated PDF readers.
Foxit may be one of the first names that comes to mind when people think about alternative PDF readers, as it was one of the first alternative PDF readers to gain steam – and it’s still a great option today. Unfortunately, it does try to install a toolbar and change your web browser’s home page during installation. Unlike some of the more lightweight option, Foxit has built-in support for annotations, highlights and other PDF-editing features – it’s a more full-featured alternative to Adobe Reader.
Sumatra PDF stands out as the most lightweight PDF reader available. It’s very lightweight, has a simple interface, and is also available as a portable app that you can take with you anywhere. It doesn’t have any editing options or other advanced features – it’s just a window that loads extremely quickly and displays PDFs. It’s also packed with keyboard shortcuts, making it even more ideal for quickly reading PDFs. Sumatra also supports other types of files, including eBooks in ePub and Mobi format and comic books in CBZ and CBR formats.
Nitro stands out among free PDF readers with some unique features, as well as a slick interface – although people that dislike Microsoft’s ribbon interface may prefer another application’s interface. It’s got some features you won’t find elsewhere – for example, its QuickSign feature allows you to capture a digital image of your signature and apply it to PDF documents. Nitro PDF can also convert files from Microsoft Word and other formats to PDF, convert PDF files to text, and extract images from PDF files. For a more in-depth look at Nitro PDF Reader, check out our full review.
PDF-XChange Viewer is a fast application, although it isn’t as lightweight as some of the other available PDF readers. It’s got good support for editing and annotations, although more complex edits will require a more full-featured, paid application like Adobe Acrobat. For more information about PDF-XChange Viewer, check out our full review.
Adobe Reader is still the standard PDF reader, although it’s definitely not the fastest. While most PDF documents work perfectly fine in other PDF readers, every now and then a document will only work in Adobe Reader. If you prefer another PDF reader, don’t be surprised if you have to occasionally fire up Adobe Reader to view a more complex PDF that just isn’t working properly in other PDF readers. There’s a reason Chrome’s in-browser PDF reader prompts users to open (or download) Adobe Reader in some cases.
For more great Windows software, check out our list of the 168 best free Windows applications.
How do you read PDFs on Windows? Leave a comment and tell us which PDF reader you prefer.