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.
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.
The first message I got from PDF-XCHANGE VIEWER from Tracker Software Products was a warning that I might need to use Adobe Reader to view the form in my test document. Fortunately, PDF-XCHANGE VIEWER made this easy by putting an Acrobat icon near the bottom of the program to load the current document in it. PDF-XCHANGE VIEWER will even download and install Adobe Reader for you.
PDF-XCHANGE VIEWER has a lot of cool features not in Adobe Reader. The best was the rich set of markup tools, although using some of them in the free version will watermark the document with an ad.
The program’s print options are excellent–at least as good as Adobe’s. But, sadly, as with Foxit, PDF-XCHANGE VIEWER exhibited a problem running as a Standard User in Windows. It also had trouble with form field type restrictions, letting me put letters in a telephone number field.
CoolPDF Software puts more marketing into its product than most of the other free viewer vendors, touting the viewer as being small and fast. That’s debatable, but the app is seriously lacking in features.
It has no support for filling in forms or scripting, and basic navigation is tiresome–you can’t page up/page down, but instead have to use the app’s right/left arrow buttons. And, I wouldn’t say that CoolPDF felt all that fast, either.
The app does have one interesting feature–a slideshow function that displays all of the pages in the PDF.
PDF Reader 2.4
CAD-KAS’ CAD-KAS PDF Reader 2.4 is a complicated program for a PDF reader.
Like many of the other alternatives to Acrobat Reader that I looked at, it has markup and editing tools. However, in the CAD-KAS app, these tools are the focus. The program is called “Reader,” but it’s structured more like an editor. Even though the editing tools are better than those in the other programs I tested, they get in the way of simple viewing. And some of the tools, of course, are active only in the pay version.
In addition, the program may be small–at least on disc–but it’s anything but fast. During tests it took quite a while to load and responded sluggishly.
In addition, I was not happy to see that the installer placed an eBay affiliate link on the desktop without asking
Perfect PDF Reader 5
soft Xpansion’s Perfect PDF Reader 5 is not in the “small and fast” category of reader by any means. The installer requires the Visual C++ 2008 Redistributable Package, making the total product weigh in at 268MB. That’s a lot for a PDF viewer–much more than Adobe 9 (188MB on the same computer)–and I caught Perfect PDF Reader 5 at one point using well over 100MB of RAM.
For all that heft, you get a program with that Office 2007 look. It really does have a great interface for reading PDFs. If you just want to breeze through, maybe select some text and print, Perfect PDF Reader is a good way to do it.
For reasons unclear, Perfect PDF Reader 5 includes some tools, like font enumeration, that are more appropriate for a PDF editor than for a reader. It also has what appears to be well-designed tools for use of digital signatures, is more straightforward than any of the other readers tested and, like PDF-XCHANGE, provides a button to view the document in Adobe Reader.
I have to admit that I’m a little tempted by Perfect PDF Reader 5, but it’s hard to argue for the app in comparison to Adobe Reader.