Ditch the PDF headaches: Three safer, speedier Adobe Reader alternatives

Another day, another critical security exploit discovered for Adobe Reader. Ho-hum. The PDF software's near-ubiquitous presence has made it a big, fat, juicy target for years now, and by this point, you shouldn't be asking what Adobe's going to do to shore up its perpetually leaky program. Instead, you should ask yourself: Why are you still using Adobe Reader at all?

Believe it or not, the PDF viewer scene is bristling with a number of alternatives that receive far less nefarious attention than Adobe's software. Switching away from Reader won't only free you from the tiresome exploit-update-exploit-update-exploit treadmill, it could very well free up some of your valuable system resources. Adobe Reader's so big and bloated that even its most feature-packed competitors seem downright svelte in comparison.

Without further ado, here's a trio of PCWorld tested—and approved!—PDF readers that can free you from Reader's headaches, no matter whether you're looking for a simple, lightweight PDF viewer or a more robust PDF editing and creation tool.

The contenders

Sumatra PDF. If you just want the ability to open PDFs and don't care about bells and whistles, Sumatra PDF is an excellent choice. The program's pretty much limited to straightforward PDF viewing, but it's lightning-fast and uses very few system resources.

Foxit Reader. Foxit Reader's not quite as fast or resource-friendly as Sumatra PDF, but it's still incredibly lightweight, and it packs a few features you won't find in Sumatra; namely, PDF-to-speech functionality, the ability to fill out fields and add text to PDFs, and optional integration with the DocuSign service.

Nitro PDF Reader. The final PDF reader of the bunch opens files slower than the other two options, but makes up for its somewhat pokey performance with a deep feature list—and it's still the equivalent of an Olympic sprinter compared to Adobe Reader's downright sluggish speeds. The free version of Nitro Reader can print (read: convert) virtually any document to a PDF, comes packed with collaboration, creation, and editing tools, and lets you embed your signature into any PDF. That's just the tip of the ice berg, and even better, Nitro PDF Reader dumps nary a watermark on your documents—a rarity amongst free PDF creation tools.

Don't stop with Reader!

Java is another frequently exploited platform.

Once you've gone ahead left Adobe Reader in the rearview mirror, you can plug another persistent security hole by uninstalling Java (unless, of course, you have a compelling reason otherwise). There's no real alternative available for Adobe Flash— the final troublesome cornerstone in the triumvirate of hackers' favorite third-party targets—but the technology has lost some of its luster thanks to the rapid rise of HTML5. Adobe has already pulled the plug on Flash for smartphones and Linux PCs.

Internet Explorer is another frequent target for exploits. Combat that danger by keeping Windows Updates set to "Automatic," or better yet, try an alternative browser like Mozilla's Firefox or Google Chrome.

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