When you need to open a PDF, you'll usually opt for one of two options: the Reader app for Windows 8 and 10 (often pre-installed with the operating system, or available from the Windows Store), or trusty stalwart Adobe Acrobat Reader.
Both are solid options, but there are many other free PDF readers that can do even more. If you want to merge documents, convert them to a different format or extract images, there's a free PDF reader that will make it straightforward.
After installation, each of these programs will ask if you want to make it your default PDF reader. We recommend leaving your settings as they are until you've had a chance to try the new software and see if it's right for you. If you're satisfied with its performance, you can make it your go-to program for PDFs by right-clicking one and selecting 'Open with'. Browse to the EXE file for your new PDF reader, check 'Always use the selected program to open this kind of file', then click 'OK'.
1. Foxit Reader
A clear interface and every tool you could ever wish for in a PDF reader
Foxit Reader is perhaps the best known alternative to Adobe Reader, and it's easy to see why it's regarded as the best free PDF reader around.
Its ribbon-based interface takes inspiration from Microsoft Office, so you'll instinctively know where to find its impressive array of tools. Its tabbed browsing makes it easy to work with multiple PDFs at the same time, and there are some nice extra touches such as form filling and PDF annotation.
Downloadable add-ons are available to convert PDFs to other formats (and vice versa) and to combine multiple PDFs into a single file. File conversion is incredibly simple thanks to the inclusion of an entry in Windows' context menu.
This power and flexibility makes Foxit Reader the best PDF reader you can download today. Try it now and you won't look back.
Review and where to download: Foxit Reader
2. Nitro PDF Reader
A great PDF reader for collaboration, with tracked changes and sticky notes
Like Foxit Reader, Nitro PDF Reader bears more than a passing resemblance to Microsoft Office applications – and this is no bad thing. Right from the start this feels like a highly accomplished piece of software and there are plenty of document viewing options to choose from.
But this free PDF reader is about more than just viewing. As well as including an annotation and highlighting option, Nitro PDF Reader also lets you add sticky notes to the documents you open.
You can use Nitro PDF Reader to convert text documents to PDF format, and vice versa. You can also extract all of the images from a PDFs in one fell swoop, digitally sign electronic documents with an e-signature. This is without doubt one of the most polished free PDF readers out there.
Review and where to download: Nitro PDF Reader
3. PDF-XChange Editor
A classic free PDF reader, fully overhauled for the Windows 10 generation
The free edition of PDF-XChange Editor contains handy features such as tracked comments and the ability to insert or extract pages, but those marked 'Pro' in the menu are only available in the paid-for version.
The killer feature of PDF-XChange Editor's free edition is OCR (optical character recognition). You can scan printed documents, have the text converted into searchable format, and save the resulting document as a PDF.
During installation, we recommend selecting the 'Custom' option rather than 'Complete', then deselecting the components you don't want to install. They are presented as an expandable tree, so make sure you click all the '+' icons to discover what's hidden there.
Review and where to download: PDF-XChange Editor
4. SlimPDF Reader
A frill-free PDF reader that barely makes a dent in your disk space
SlimPDF Reader is by far the smallest download in this roundup, occupying just 1.43MB of space, and makes a virtue of its frill-free approach.
SlimPDF Reader really is little more than a viewer, but that's no bad thing. Controls and navigations are simple and self-explanatory, and the program benefits from being lightning-fast.
Search, print and rotate are the most advanced features you'll find, although you are invited to try a free trial of the PDF to Office converter.
If you're looking for a free PDF reader without the bloat, SlimPDF Reader could be the ideal choice. The only real drawback is the inability to view two pages side-by-side as a spread.
Review and where to download: SlimPDF Reader
5. Icecream Ebook Reader
Not just for ebooks – Icecream's lightweight free reader is great for PDFs too
As the name suggests, Icecream Ebook Reader is designed primarily for viewing EPUB and MOBI documents, but it doubles as a simple free PDF reader.
As this is an ebook reader, you are encouraged to organise all of your books into a library, sortable by type and fully searchable - but there's nothing to stop you from just opening individual PDFs.
The program has a slightly unusual look, but it is a joy to use. Navigation of PDFs is wonderfully simple, and there are a number of viewing modes to choose from, including an eye-friendly night mode. You can quickly add bookmarks and create notes, which are accessed through the fly-out Contents pane.
If you have a Word document or ebook that you'd to convert to PDF format, or vice versa, you might like Icecream PDF Converter, from the same developer.
Review and where to download: Icecream Ebook Reader