I love the Preview app that comes installed on all Mac systems. It’s pretty much the catch-all app for viewing and making basic edits to images or documents, and it comes with a bunch of nifty features that are useful. But even though Preview supports PDF documents, it could be better.
This seems to be the case for many of the default Mac apps, at least in my experience. They’re great 90 percent of the time, but eventually you run into quirks, limitations, or hindrances that may prod you into wondering if any good alternatives exist out there.
So I did some searching and testing and found a handful of free Preview alternatives that felt better to use for PDF reading — and I’m confident that you’ll like at least one of the options in this post.
This is my preferred PDF reader of choice by a long shot. It has all of the core features that you’d expect, including some basic customizations and settings to tweak, and it’s extremely lightweight and fast. It’s all the good of Preview without any of the weird quirks that put me off.
Skim is actually designed with academic and scientific papers in mind, so its greatest feature is the ability to annotate documents. You can add and edit notes as well as highlight text, which doesn’t sound like much, but the key is the easy-to-use interface that never gets in the way.
Other notable features include support for AppleScript and Apple Remote Control, creating document “snapshots” for reference and revision control, viewing pages in presentation mode with transitions, and more.
2. Foxit Reader
Foxit Reader is arguably the most popular PDF reader currently available, even beating out SumatraPDF (which is my preferred reader of choice on Windows). When you load it up for the first time, you’ll understand why users love it so much. It’s pretty, it works, and it’s fast.
I’m listing it as second in this post, but it’s a very close second. In fact, depending on what you need from your PDF reading app, Foxit Reader may indeed be the better alternative for you. It comes with a tabbed interface, which is especially useful when you’re dealing with dozens of documents at the same time.
If Skim didn’t exist, I’d be using Foxit Reader. There’s absolutely no contest. It may not offer much in terms of customizability, but the PDF-reading experience is top notch. Highly recommended.
Everyone has used Acrobat Reader at one point or another. Like Flash, it’s maintained by Adobe, and like Flash, it has a reputation for being bloated, messy, and full of security vulnerabilities. But things have changed and Acrobat Reader actually isn’t so bad these days, particularly on a Mac.
As with Foxit, Acrobat has a tab-based interface that makes it great for keeping multiple documents open. But Acrobat’s biggest feature is the Document Cloud (which is why it now has “DC” in its name). With it, you can store your files securely on Adobe’s servers and access them from anywhere using any Acrobat Reader app, including the mobile variants.
Upgrading to the Pro version ($15 per month) also grants extra features like being able to search the text in scanned documents, exporting PDFs to various Office formats, filling and signing forms on mobile, and more.
4. Haihaisoft PDF Reader [No Longer Available]
Haihaisoft PDF Reader is a super-lightweight reader for those who don’t want any bells or whistles. In a sense, it’s the complete opposite of Acrobat Reader. It doesn’t try to make your life easy, and it doesn’t even have a Preferences panel. It simply loads and displays PDF documents (including ones protected by DRM-X).
And you know what? For most people that’s perfectly fine, and if that sounds like the kind of app you want, don’t let anyone convince you to switch to Foxit or Acrobat. Haihaisoft PDF Reader is for minimalists and for those who have aging hardware who favour lightweight software for performance reasons.
Haihaisoft PDF Reader also prioritizes security and privacy. It never connects to the internet, not even to check for updates. You have to manually run the version check from the menu.
Paid PDF Solutions for Mac
If you need an app that not only reads but also creates and edits PDF documents, you’ll need to fork over a good chunk of cash to get one that’s actually worth using. Free PDF editors do exist, but they tend to fall short in usability and quality. PDF editing is complex and you don’t want to skimp here.
iSkysoft PDF Editor costs $50 for the standard version (editing, annotating, watermarking, creation, insertions, forms, and format conversions) and $100 for the professional version (OCR for scanned documents, file compression, more conversion options, and password protection for documents). Both versions come with a free trial.
PDF Studio is more expensive, costing $90 for the standard version (creation, scanning, annotating, forms, password protection, watermarking, bookmarks, and table of contents) and $130 for the professional version (OCR for scanned documents, text editing, content redaction, digital signatures, splitting and merging, batch processing, and optimizations). Both versions come with a free trial.
For serious PDF work, you can’t go wrong with either of these.
Which Preview Alternative Do You Prefer?
There’s one more app that deserves an honorable mention: Okular. It’s actually one of the best free and open source PDF readers out there but suffers from a huge problem: it’s difficult to install and set up. You need to install KDE (using Homebrew most likely) and then compile Okular from source. This is advanced stuff, so non-techy folks beware.
And considering the availablity of both Skim and Foxit Reader, I wouldn’t bother wasting any effort with Okular. Skim and Foxit Reader are easy to use, free, and beloved by many. Give them a try if you haven’t already.
What do you use for reading PDFs on Mac? Is Preview good enough or have you settled on an alternative? Share your thoughts with us in a comment below.