Showdown: Which is the Best Free PDF Reader?

The PDF is one popular file type to exchange different types of information. Mostly eBooks, article pages or simply a collection of images. To open and view PDF files you need of course a PDF viewer.

There are many of them, but I picked out the ones which I think are the most popular and useful.

The following PDF readers/viewer are being compared:

Interface

PDF Viewers / Readers Interface

PDF Viewers / Readers Interface

The icons of Adobe Reader, Foxit Reader and Nitro PDF Reader all look very nice. Nitro PDF Reader uses the ribbon toolbar with nice big icons and additionally describing titles to them. The icons of PDF-XChange Viewer remind me of Windows XP times.

While the icons of SumatraPDF and the interface itself look overall very minimal. And it only shows the most basic functions like print, page number, page navigation, page view mode, zoom and search. There are tabs used for the opened PDF files by Foxit Reader, PDF-XChange Viewer and Nitro PDF Reader. PDF-XChange Viewer even can give you a thumbnail overview of your opened PDF files.

View Modes

View Modes

View Modes

They all have different page view modes like only one page at once or two beside each other like you know from real books. A full screen view is also supported by all of them. This is useful if you want to concentrate on the pages only.

Navigation

Navigation

Navigation

All but SumatraPDF have a thumbnail sidebar of the pages for a comfortable overview of the document. You can jump to page numbers and navigate with the forward and backward Buttons in all of the apps.

And all but Adobe Reader and Nitro PDF offer bookmarks. So you can place bookmarks for any page and jump right back to your page the next time you open the PDF file. SumatraPDF has a boomarks function in its menu but I am not able use it because it is disabled for some reason.

Web Browser Integration

Web Browser Integration

Web Browser Integration

All of the readers integrate into your web browser. This means if you open a weblink to a PDF file it opens in you browser window instead of opening in an extra window.

Browsers supported include Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera and Chrome. Tough chrome has its own PDF viewer integrated which won’t be replaced. SumatraPDF does not install into Internet Explorer.

Performance

Performance

Performance

None of the apps seem to have a noticeable faster or slower start-up. But there are big differences in their RAM usage. SumatraPDF uses a lot less RAM than the others (about 1 MB – no file opened). While the Nitro PDF Reader uses the most (about 51 MB – no file opened). Adobe Reader, Foxit Reader and PDF-XChange Viewer use about the same amount of resources (12 MB, 16 MB, 11 MB), which is absolutely acceptable.

Portable Version

Portable Version

Portable Version

Only SumatraPDF and PDF-XChange Viewer offer a portable version besides the regular installer. Simply download, extract the archive and run the app. You can copy it to your USB stick and run it on other Windows machines without installation.

Exporting PDF To Image

Exporting PDF To Image

Exporting PDF To Image

Some times you need the contents of a PDF file as image file. All but SumatraPDF and Nitro PDF Reader support this. They let you take screenshots of your area of choice. PDF-XChange Viewer even lets you export whole pages to image files.

Note Features

Note Features

Note Features

A very handy feature is the note feature which gives you the possibility to place notes directly on the pages of PDF files. This can be helpful if you need to remember something for later or to make notes for another person. Adobe Reader offers you to place basic notes as overlaying boxes in PDF files and highlight text areas. With Foxit Reader and PDF-XChange Viewer you can even draw lines and arrows. There are no note features in SumatraPDF.

Text To Speech

Text To Speech

Text To Speech

Adobe Reader and Foxit Reader are the only which offer text to speech features. This can be very handy if you want to do something else while listening to the voice reading for you. Tough the voice sounds very robotic.

Extra Features

Some of the apps have some nice little extra features. Nitro PDF Reader comes with a virtual PDF printer. This means you can print any document into a PDF file. Similar to to converting for example you can save your word document as PDF file. Nitro PDF Reader also can write text directly into the PDF files. Foxit Reader has a safe reading mode which shall prevent you from malicious documents. PDF-XChange Viewer comes with OCR features. I tried it but the results were not useful at all.

SumatraPDF with it’s minimal concept seems to be the only with absolutely no extra features.

Conclusion

All apps have the basic features for reading/viewing PDF files like different page view modes, zooming in and out and searching the document. I myself stick with Adobe Reader as it has basic features and comes directly from the inventor of PDF files.

If I need a minimal reader and read only few PDF files then SumatraPDF would be my choice. And it also offers the portable version which is quite useful if I need to open PDF files on another computer without installing the app.

If you like the ribbon toolbar and don’t care about 51 MB being used up of your RAM, then you could try Nitro PDF Reader. For direct Adobe Reader alternatives, I would consider Foxit Reader and PDF-XChange Viewer since they come closest to its features and even have a few more extras.


  • http://asmodiel.de Asmodiel

    Hey there, interesting article :)
    I’ve been using Sumatra for some time now but I switched to Mac lately, so I only need Preview. Whyever noone cared to include something into windows.
    Anyway, it would be interesting to see whether the ribbon interface would lead to such a high memory consumption (or would that be the mere fault of a lazy programmer? :) )

  • http://beyn.org/ Barış Ünver

    SumatraPDF FTW :) Although it’s kinda worse than SumatraPDF, we can always use Google Chrome for previewing the PDFs.

  • http://codoxide.com Sameera

    My favorite is STDU Viewer which is perhaps another minimalistic viewer. The best feature of it is that it can reopen the document from the point where I last left off. It also supports many more file types than PDF, including comic book formats (.cbr).
    Memory usage is about 7MB with no files open.
    The UI isn’t too fancy. But for a sleek, fast viewer that support PDF and many more types, I’d recommend STDU Viewer over any other mentioned above.

  • d-rock

    We have tried them all. The none adobe ones we found crashed or hung or gave strange results. Their support is nonexistant. I know Adobe reader is process hungry than some of the others but at least its more stable and provides better support.

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  • http://www.muratursavas.com Murat Ursavas

    I’m quite happy with Foxit Reader since I saw bizarre CPU/RAM usages of Adobe Reader in the past. I even reported some bugs to Foxit Team. They were very responsive. It still has some little UI bugs but as I said before, I’m happy with it.

  • Ken

    Nice article. I’ve used all of these (except Sumatra) for one thing or another. I like PDF-xchange for when I need to do simple markup to a file (like highlighting or adding simple graphics), but I still tend to use Adobe reader (ver. 9) for my browser pdf reading. Nitro uses too much memory for general usage, but it is good if you want to open several documents in a single tabbed window.

  • WhoamI

    I like Foxit Reader, very reliable core technology used by Kindle and HTC.

  • lll

    Foxit Reader have a portable app as well. Adobe Reader has a portable version called Adobe Reader Lite.

    I personally used Nitro PDF. Although it does take up a lot of space on the hard drive its a very useful tool. I recommend it.

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