The Best PDF Readers for Windows

Getting a good PDF viewer is easier than ever. Modern web browsers like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Edge can all read PDFs out of the box, so you may not even need one. But if you want a separate PDF viewer, perhaps for the advanced PDF features some documents require, we have some options.

Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Microsoft Edge: Your Browser Handles the Basics

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Modern web browsers come with integrated PDF readers. You don’t even need to install a separate PDF viewer anymore. Browser PDF readers work well, offering a speedy experience without additional load times and clutter. And, since your browser updates its integrated PDF reader automatically, it’s always up-to-date with the latest security fixes.

Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Edge all come with integrated PDF readers. When you find a PDF on the web, click it and it will open directly in your web browser. PDFs are treated just like other web pages. When you’re done, you can just hit the back button and keep browsing.

You can make PDF files on your hard drive open in your preferred web browser, too. For example, let’s say you want to open PDF files in Chrome. Just locate a .PDF file on your computer, right-click it, and select Open With > Choose Another App.

Select Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Microsoft Edge in the list, check the “Always use this app to open .pdf files” option, and click “OK”. The browser you chose will become your default PDF reader and will be used when you double-click a PDF file.

If you don’t see your preferred browser here, scroll down in the list, select More Apps > Look For Another App on This PC, and point Windows at the browser’s .exe file in your Program Files folder.

Sumatra PDF: A Speedy, Lightweight PDF Viewer Outside Your Browser

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If you do want a separate PDF reading program, we recommend Sumatra PDF. Sumatra is an open-source PDF viewer that also has support for other types of documents, including ePub and Mobi eBooks, XPS documents, and CBZ and CBR comic books.

Sumatra PDF is small, lightweight, and fast. It works entirely outside your browser, so PDFs will open in a separate window. It’s even available as a portable application, so you can take it with you and use it on any PC, even if you can’t install software on that PC.

There’s no real advantage to using this application over your web browser unless you just like having a separate application. It should work just as well as your browser, with no big additional features. But, if you’d rather see PDFs in a separate window, Sumatra PDF is your best bet.

Adobe Acrobat Reader DC: Slower, But Supports Advanced PDF Features

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We recommend you stick with your web browser or a lightweight PDF reader like Sumatra PDF most of the time. Most PDF documents you’ll come across are not complicated, and they work very well—and very quickly—in these simplified PDF readers.

But, every now and then, you may come across a PDF document that needs additional features. For example, we’ve seen official government PDFs that include complex, scripted fillable forms that don’t work in the average PDF viewer. PDF documents can also contain 3D models and other rich media objects, and those just won’t work in your browser or Sumatra.

If you come across a PDF that doesn’t work properly in your typical PDF reader, we recommend Adobe’s official Adobe Acrobat Reader DC application. It’s unnecessarily heavy compared to lightweight PDF alternatives, but it will be able to handle all the obscure PDF features you’re likely to encounter. If you find yourself needing to open PDFs that require advanced features regularly, you should probably just stick with Adobe Acrobat Reader DC as your main PDF viewer, as much as it pains us to say.

Adobe Acrobat Reader has historically had regular security holes, likely due to all the additional features it needs to support. Modern versions of Adobe Acrobat Reader DC are automatically kept up-to-date with the latest security patches. Don’t worry about enabling automatic updates—automatic updates are enabled by default, and you can’t normally disable them.

Warning: The latest versions of Adobe Acrobat reader automatically prompt you to install a Chrome extension that reports information about your web browsing to Adobe. When you’re prompted to install an Adobe Acrobat extension in Chrome, click “Remove from Chrome”. There’s no good reason to activate this extension.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Twitter.