Adobe Reader Alternatives Are Usable but Not Especially Compelling

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2009-04-09 Print this article Print

The Adobe Reader and Acrobat programs have taken many lumps when it comes to security. eWEEK Labs recently tested several alternatives to the free Reader, to see if their capabilities made it worthwhile to switch. Each app the Labs tested had something going for it, but none proved compelling enough to serve as an ongoing alternative to Reader.

Just about everyone uses PDF files to some degree: You have to be able to read them on just about any device, and the ability to write PDFs is common in most organizations. Yet security problems with Adobe's Acrobat and Reader programs have been fairly common and are actively exploited in the wild.

One thing you can do to protect yourself is to switch away from Adobe products. Since Adobe published the PDF spec many years ago, numerous companies have developed their own software to read and produce PDF files.

Because many more desktops will run the free Adobe Reader program than the for-pay Acrobat program, eWEEK Labs decided to put Reader up against some of its rival free "viewer" programs: Foxit Software's Foxit Reader, Tracker Software Products' PDF-XCHANGE VIEWER, CoolPDF Software's CoolPDF, CAD-KAS' CAD-KAS PDF Reader 2.4 and soft Xpansion's Perfect PDF Reader 5.

During tests, I didn't see any meaningful misrendering of documents using any of these products, although it's entirely possible that subtle differences eluded me. (Automation of testing of rendering fidelity is difficult at best.) I focused tests on a selection of 10 PDF documents found on the Web that used a variety of PDF features, including scripting and advanced form capabilities.

After testing was completed, I'm not so anxious to dump Adobe, as all of the programs tested provided reason for concern. Perhaps responsibly managing the vulnerabilities in Adobe products is the best solution.

Foxit Reader

Of all the alternative viewers, Foxit Reader from Foxit Software is the best known, at least in the United States. The company's main claim--and the main word on the street about Foxit--is that the application is small and fast compared with Adobe Reader. Without recording any hard numbers, Foxit Reader certainly felt faster than Adobe Reader during tests, but, overall, I'd rate it as disappointing.

The biggest problem I had with it was that it requires Administrator privileges in Windows, at least for the Firefox plugin. Thus, in default configuration, the app didn't work properly in Vista in Standard User mode.

Beyond that, I had some problems with documents, including form buttons that didn't work, and some lesser bugs, such as the menu option for resetting document forms not always working.

That said, Foxit Reader can save changes to a PDF form whether the creator has enabled it or not, although almost all of the viewers tested do the same. Foxit Reader has a nice "Text only" view that can make it easy to pick out what you're looking for. It also can open multiple documents in tabs, rather than in multiple windows.

If, as the premise of this story states, the idea is to avoid Acrobat and all those vulnerabilities it has, then Foxit is not exactly the ideal alternative. According to SecurityFocus, Foxit Reader has had three reported vulnerabilities in the last year--at least one of which could result in arbitrary code execution. Symantec even reports that it is seeing Foxit exploits in the wild.


Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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