If you’re still using Adobe Acrobat Reader for PDF documents, it’s time for you to move on. It’s one of the most notorious programs to ever exist because it hits the trifecta of poor user experience: slow to launch, bloated and unnecessary features, and too many security vulnerabilities.
With so many alternatives available, there’s no reason to keep using Adobe Reader. In fact, most modern systems come loaded with apps that can read PDFs, and if you don’t have one, then you can always rely on your web browser. These days, browser-based PDF readers are more than good enough if all you need is the ability to read (not edit).
That said, it’s still smart to keep a lightweight PDF reader on your system. Get rid of Adobe Reader and start using one of these alternatives instead. You’ll wonder how you ever lasted this long on the worst PDF reader known to man.
1. Sumatra PDF
Supported Formats: CBR, CBZ, CHM, EPUB, MOBI, PDF, XPS
Sumatra PDF is the best option for lightweight PDF reading. There’s simply no contest. It’s been around for more than a decade and it’s still actively developed. I’ve used it as my primary PDF reader for close to five years and I’ve never once considered looking for a replacement.
It has three main advantages that put it above all others. First, the executable file is under 7 MB, which is remarkable compared to the 150+ MB of a bloated app like Adobe Reader. Second, it’s lightning fast, and loads even large PDF files in the blink of an eye. Third, the interface is extremely minimal as to maximize screen estate. This is wonderful for smaller-screen devices.
And it comes in both portable and installable versions. It’s tiny enough to carry around on a USB flash drive of any size and you’ll be able to read PDFs anywhere you go.
Download — Sumatra PDF (Free)
Supported Formats: PDF
SlimPDF Reader is very much like Sumatra PDF in many ways. They have the same goals as far as design and intention, and the differences between them are rather minor. Long story short, these two apps are your best bet for lightweight PDF reading, and you should try both of them to see which one feels better to you.
One thing you’ll notice right away is its minuscule size. Whereas Sumatra PDF’s executable comes in at around 7 MB, SlimPDF Reader’s full installation doesn’t even take up 5 MB. Of course we’re talking pennies in the grand scheme of modern terabyte-sized hard drives, but tiny apps like this are so rare that it’s impressive to see.
Its only major drawback is the lack of a portable version, which usually wouldn’t be an issue worth mentioning, except portability is a big reason to use a lightweight app over a full-featured alternative, and that’s certainly true for PDF readers.
Download — SlimPDF Reader (Free)
Supported Formats: PDF
PDF-XChange Viewer has actually been discontinued, with all of its features having been ported over and included in PDF-XChange Editor. However, you can still download the latest version of PDF-XChange Viewer and use it as a lightweight PDF reader. Just don’t expect any updates.
Why use this app when Sumatra PDF and SlimPDF Reader already exist? Because PDF-XChange Viewer doesn’t aim to be a super-lightweight or barebones. It’s a middle-of-the-road solution: reasonable install size and fast performance, but packed with nifty features like tabbed browsing, OCR for images, comments and annotations, encryption and passwords, bookmarks, and more.
PDF-XChange Viewer is available in several installation formats as well as a portable version, which comes in at just over 21 MB. If you can get over the outdated interface, this is the best choice for when you need a compromise between speed, size, and features.
Download — PDF-XChange Viewer (Free)
Supported Formats: CBZ, EPUB, PDF, XPS
MuPDF is so lightweight that it doesn’t even have a graphical interface — you have to launch it from the command line using mupdf [path-to-file.pdf] and certain options can only be set using launch parameters (for example, -p [password] to open password-protected documents).
It’s not for everyone, but it’s excellent for command line fanatics and veterans.
Once a PDF document is opened, all navigation is done using keyboard shortcuts. Check the MuPDF user manual to see what those shortcuts are. It’s actually quite productive if you can get over the initial learning curve. Notable features include transparency, annotations, encryption, searching, and more. Plus it’s open source, so you can extend it yourself if you wish.
One other aspect to note is that MuPDF is specifically tailored for PDF fidelity. It is the most faithful when it comes to PDFs with high-resolution, anti-aliased graphics. Of course this only matters if you have high-quality PDF documents to begin with, but if you do, then you’ll notice the difference.
Download — MuPDF (Free)
What Do You Use to Read PDFs?
If these apps are perhaps too lightweight for you, or if you’ve decided that a lightweight reader isn’t exactly what you need, then we recommend checking out these excellent PDF readers for Windows. And why stop there? Consider installing a lightweight alternative for reading Office files, too.
Note that you can do more than just “read” PDFs. There are tools out there for extracting images from PDF documents and several ways to reduce or compress PDF files, for example. Using a lightweight PDF reader is only the first step to mastering a productive PDF workflow.
So what’s your favorite way to read PDFs: in browser or with a dedicated app? Are there any good alternatives, tips, or tricks that we missed? Let us know in a comment below!
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