Wednesday, February 27, 2008

First Looks - Sumatra PDF 0.8 - A fast, free alternative to Adobe Reader

I have always wondered why the PDF format became a web and desktop standard for publishing documents. I wondered because the only application available for reading them was Adobe Reader, which has always been slow to launch and slow to respond while viewing a document. And matters have just gotten worse over time, as Adobe Reader has become more and more bloated. Thankfully, things have been changing recently. We now have some alternatives to Adobe Reader - First their was Foxit Reader, then PDF-XChange, and now there is another new kid on the block - Sumatra PDF.

Unlike Foxit Reader and PDF Exchange, the developers of Sumatra PDF have chosen to follow the KISS principle with their program. Sumatra PDF can be used to view and print PDF files, and that's about it. Since that's all that 90% of us need a PDF viewer for to begin with, they've chosen a good path to follow. The program is small, launches very fast, and is very responsive when moving about in documents.

The interface is clean and simple, with forward and back buttons for moving about in the document, zoom + and - buttons, and a find function. The find function will find all occurrences of a word or phrase, and conveniently highlights the text in yellow. Two additional buttons allow you to find the next or previous occurrence.

Setting Sumatra PDF up to view a full page at a time, sized so that it is readable, is much easier to do than it is in Adobe Reader. I always have to fiddle with Adobe to do this across different PDF documents, but I found that Sumatra usually opens a document already set up this way. I think part of the reason is that the user interface consumes a lot less real estate in Sumatra than in Adobe.

One thing to note - Sumatra PDF was not designed to integrate with browsers, so PDFs are opened in a separate program window. This may be a show-stopper for some of you, but I happen to like it.

Even though Sumatra PDF is still beta software (current version 0.8), I experienced no serious bugs. The only minor thing I noticed was that when viewing a couple of very complicated PDFs (files with multiple images and diagrams on a single page), Sumatra took a noticeable amount of time to render the page. But I viewed a variety of other PDF files with no problem at all.

The Bottom Line...

A real alternative to Adobe Reader if you just need to view and print PDFs. Small, fast with a very clean and simple user interface. It's Open Source, so it's free for personal or commercial use. Even though it's still in beta, I found the application overall to be very well behaved - your mileage may vary due to its beta status. I like it enough that I left it on my machine as my default PDF viewer after the review. If you are not frightened by the word beta, I would recommend giving Sumatra PDF a try. If you are, stay tuned - I will post an update when the first official release happens. You can download Sumatra PDF here.


Christoff said...

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Christoff Gouws

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