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Free alternatives to Adobe Reader

The best PDF software for you may not be the free program from the company that's synonymous with PDFs.

Adobe Systems' Portable Document Format (PDF) is one of the great successes of the software industry. PDF has been the de facto standard for document exchange since the mid-1990s, but it wasn't an official ISO standard until 2008.

Unfortunately, the ubiquity of Adobe Reader and other PDF software has made the format a target for malware perpetrators. Along with Sun's Java, Adobe's Flash Player, and Apple's QuickTime media players, it's imperative that you keep your PDF reader up-to-date to prevent it from becoming an entryway for viruses. (I wrote about the importance of keeping your apps updated in a post from last April.)

So when I heard last week about an important security update for Adobe Reader 9, I hurried to the Adobe site to download the new version 9.2. But the 45MB download included a separate program: with Adobe AIR. This is a Web service for sharing and collaborating on documents. It was formerly called Create Adobe PDF Online.

Update, October 27, 2009: The Adobe site is now offering the Adobe Reader 9.2 upgrade without the with Adobe AIR component. Thanks to CNET member baddy_3- for pointing this out.

I hadn't signed up for—registration is required to use the service—I just wanted the Adobe Reader update. I couldn't find it offered on Adobe's site minus the add-on I didn't want. I contacted Adobe to ask them about this. Adobe spokesperson John Cristofano told me the following via e-mail:

"(I)f a user downloads the full installer of Adobe Reader 9.2 (Windows or Macintosh in English) from the 'Get Adobe Reader' page on, the on Adobe AIR application will be included. If a user already has a previous version of Adobe Reader 9.x installed on his/her system and the Adobe Updater delivers that person the version 9.2 update (the latest dot release update to their existing product), on Adobe AIR is not included."

I didn't recall installing with AIR on my system, but I can't verify that it wasn't installed prior to the update to version 9.2, either. The machine's only six months old, though, and I hadn't signed up for the service, so I certainly had never used with AIR if it were on this PC.

In any event, I wasn't inclined to wait for Adobe Reader's auto-update component to fetch and install the latest security patch without, nor would I recommend that other Adobe Reader 9.x users wait to update their version. And if you updated the program manually from Adobe's download site, you got with AIR, whether you wanted it or not.

Adobe Reader 9.2 download page
Downloading Adobe Reader 9.2 from the Adobe site requires that you also install with Adobe AIR. Adobe Systems

You're also offered a free McAfee Security Scan, but at least you can uncheck that option to do without the scan. (If you're still using Adobe Reader 7 or 8, you can update to versions 7.1.4 and 8.1.7, respectively, without having to install any other programs.)

I could've saved myself a lot of time and trouble if I had just stuck with Foxit Reader, the free PDF reader from Foxit Software. I used Foxit Reader exclusively on my old laptop, but for some reason I switched back to Adobe Reader when I bought my new machine last spring. Foxit Reader has a lot of fans, but it's far from the only free Adobe Reader alternative.

Tracker Software Products' PDF-XChange Viewer does a good job of matching Adobe Reader's features and interface while—like Foxit Reader—taking up much less disk space (though at 15MB, PDF-XChange Viewer is almost three times as large as Foxit Reader).

If small is what you're after, try the open-source Sumatra PDF Viewer, which at just over 1MB is downright lilliputian, compared to the competition. The program may lack some of the polish of its larger brethren, but it might be all the PDF reader you need.

An even-smaller free PDF reader is PDF2EXE Software's CoolPDF Reader, which weighs in at a modest 900KB. You'll find capsule reviews of these and one other free PDF reader at the Tech Support Alert site.

By the way, if you're looking for a free way to create PDFs, I described one in a post from March 2008: Acro Software's CutePDF Writer. Coincidentally, that post also included information about the free trial of Create Adobe PDF Online, which has since become Talk about going full circle!