Four free PDF readers reviewed

Editor’s Note:
Duff Johnson is the CEO of Appligent Document Solutions. This article originally appeared on, and has been reprinted with permission.

FULL DISCLOSURE: While I am an occasional consultant to Adobe Systems (among others), this review is objective. Planet PDF is a division of Nitro PDF Software, which is a competitor of Nuance. Nuance’s PDF Reader is reviewed in this article.

Cutting through the bloatware bloviation

Almost every review of PDF software (some examples here, here and here) starts or ends with the complaint that Adobe’s Reader is bloated ‘for some unknown reason.’ As such, it is claimed, a need for alternative ‘lightweight’ free PDF viewing software was born.

Bloat implies ‘unnecessary weight’. Adobe’s Reader weighs in at 182 MB installed because (a) it’s built to handle as many of the poorly constructed PDF files in the world as possible, and (b) it’s got lots of hidden functionality.

Why poorly-constructed PDFs exist at all is another question (we’ll talk about it some other time), but the fact remains: there are lots of malformed PDFs out there.

If you are counting installer or installed megabytes (who still does this?) there are definitely smaller competitors, but they can’t open all the bad PDFs that Adobe Reader can handle.

In the last five years, download size and disc space required has lost almost all significance when it comes to choosing software. If you can’t stand the wait for a 26 MB download vs 6 or 16 MB, I’m confident that you represent a vanishingly small proportion of real world users. We’re not talking about hundreds of megabytes here. Most users can manage a DSL connection or better as often as they need to install software.

Let’s agree to call something ‘bloated’ if we know there’s no reason for the size and/or if the size creates a problem. Otherwise, let’s get back to performance, which is far, far more interesting than megabytes.

Is my software properly caffeinated?

The second common complaint is that Adobe Reader is ‘slow’. A while ago, we performed a casual comparison of Adobe Reader with Preview in Mac OS X, and determined that in at least that one specific instance, Reader was a little faster.

Now we’re back to look at PDF Readers for Windows, and this time, we’re looking for more information.

The PDF reader review

I chose 3 free PDF desktop viewers for Windows in addition to Adobe’s Reader for this review. All tests were performed under Windows XP (itself running under VMware, if you must know).

Rather than focus on marquee features or each company’s claims, I chose to evaluate real-world performance in key government and business functions to see whether or not these applications were ready for prime-time.

What ‘prime time’ means when it comes to choosing a PDF viewer

If you claim to be an ‘Adobe Reader replacement’, you better be ready to play in Adobe Reader’s league, which means far more than the ability to display and print PDF files. Everyone recognizes this, which is why all these free Readers are larded up with additional, non-Reader features.

Specifics about the tests conducted are provided below the tables.

Adobe Systems




Available OS Win / Mac / Linux Windows only
Version tested v9.3.1 v3.1.4.1125
Linearized PDF support (Fast Web View) Yes No
Certified Documents All functions Ignored
Open Options Correct Ignored
Annotations (Notes) Yes Buggy*
Cold start speed 2.3 secs 3.1 secs
Warm start speed 1.0 secs 1.1 secs
Open file speed 0.53 secs 0.68 secs
Open giant file speed 0.9 secs 1.6 secs
‘Simple’ Form OK Fail**
‘Complex’ Form OK Fail**
Acrobat JS support Complete Incomplete
XFA forms support Yes No
PDF/A support Conforming Unaware
Size / download 26.7 MB 5.2 MB
Size / installed 182 MB 9.2 MB

Tracker Software

Xchange Viewer


PDF Reader

Available OS Windows only Windows only
Version tested v2.0 v6.0
Linearized PDF support (Fast Web View) No No
Certified Documents Status only Error
Open Options Correct Correct
Annotations (Notes) Yes Buggy*
Cold start speed 9.1 secs 10.1 secs
Warm start speed 1.0 secs 3.3 secs
Open file speed 0.73 secs 0.38 secs
Open giant file speed 2.2 secs 1.1 secs
‘Simple’ Form OK OK
‘Complex’ Form Fail Fail
Acrobat JS support Incomplete Incomplete
XFA forms support No A little
PDF/A support Unaware Unaware
Size / download 18.6 MB 18.6 MB
Size / installed 27.4 MB 44 MB

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