You've Probably Never Heard of My Favorite PDF Viewer, Okular


Early Cat Blogging © 1987 Tabbymom

There is a lot of text out there. More and more often these days, that text is avaiable only in electronic form. If you have something big to read, you might want to convert those bits to printed paper. But maybe the printer is too far away, you might be a dedicated environmentalist, or maybe your cat makes every new printout inaccessible by sitting on it just as soon as you put it down for a moment. For whatever reason, we all have to read big documents on our computer screens from time to time.

Okular is a great document viewer, but unless you're a Linux geek, you've probably never heard of it. If you are a Linux user, you probably didn't know it was available for Window now.

For the purpose of this post, I'm considering the task of reading small PDF documents and large book-sized PDFs on the desktop. I generally don't care about fill-out forms, DRM, encryption, and stuff like that, so I won't evaluate such features wherever they may be available.

Here's a brief run-down of the free PDF viewers I know of for Windows:

Adobe Reader

This is the one everyone should know about. Adobe created the PDF format in 1993; fortunately for us, some time after that, they declared it an open format that anyone could produce software for, royalty-free. They also wisely chose to distribute the viewer, Adobe Reader, for free.

Pro: Everybody else is doing it! Also renders individual pages very quickly, even when rapidly scrolling forward and backward in the document; supports annotations.

Con: Takes too long to start; no "Bookmark this page" command; can't search within Table of Contents headings.


GSView is the reference implementation of a viewer to go with the GhostScript system from the Unix world. The Windows package for this application seems to be an afterthought.

After I installed GSView, the initial window spilled across my two displays. Then it said I had to install GhostScript and sent me to a web page were I couldn't figure out what file I should download.

Deal breaker: I couldn't figure out how to get it running without going off on a troubleshooting tangent.

Foxit Reader

Foxit Reader is a fairly well-known small and fast-starting alternative to Adobe Reader.

Pro: Starts up in a flash; renders pages as quickly as Adobe Reader, as far as I can tell; support annotations.

Con: It's nagware, and the other contenders aren't; no "Bookmark this page" command; can't search within Table of Contents headings.

PDF XChange

I found PDF XChange listed in Wikipedia and tried it out for the first time while writing this post. Eew eew! Toolbar-itis! Next, please.

PDF XChange: Toolbar-itis

Pro: Didn't test far enough to find any positive things.

Con: Product's web page is full of ALL CAPS --- that turns me off; nagware; toolbar-itis!


Okular is the document viewer component of the KDE Desktop Environment for Unix systems. KDE has been available as an add-on for Windows since 2008, which is quite handy if you're a hacker living in the Unix world and you're already a fan of any particular KDE applications.

Pro: Starts up really fast; fully searchable Table of Contents; ability to bookmark an individual page within a file; support for annotations; support many different document and image formats (PDF, CHM, DVI, GIF, JPeg, OpenOffice, etc.)

Con: To install it in Windows, you need to use the kdewin-installer and either choose the default install (most of KDE) or wade through for the one app you want; relatively slow rendering when rapidly scrolling through a document.

Sumatra PDF

Sumatra PDF is another free PDF viewer that's been floating around for a while.

Pro: Starts up really fast; sorta searchable Table of Contents.

Con: No "Bookmark this page" command.

Dealbreaker: Can't copy document content to clipboard.

Why Okular is my favorite

I've used the KDE Desktop Environment on and off in my various Linux computers, in the past few years. In that time I've become familiar with Okular, since it's KDE's default viewer for ready-to-publish document formats such as PDF.

One of the must-have features I find in Okular is strangely absent from all the other software I list above: type to search in the Table of Contents pane.

Okular: Typing in the Table of Contents pane to search only headings

Sumatra PDF lets you type on the Table of Contents pane, but after I find the first match, I can't figure out how to search again from that point. Adobe Reader, Foxit, and others don't even come close --- as far as I can tell, you can't search the Table of Contents links; you can only search within the body of the document, which is rather annoying when you have to wade through pages and pages of hits when you know the topic you want is listed clearly in the Table of Contents. You're forced to scroll to the page where the Table of Contents appears as regular content, and then hope those items are hyperlinks.

Consider one of the tasks I perform most often in Okular, which is looking up built-in functions and tags in the ColdFusion reference manual. Most of the time I know the name of the function I want, so I just click on the Table of Contents pane, type in that name, and the list below is automatically filtered to show matches. Using Okular's competitor applications, I can't find any easy way to this.

Another important feature of Okular is the Add Bookmark command. Consider the number of "ebooks" distributed as PDF files, along with all the technical manuals, project reports, and other electronic material you might spend a long time reading; how could any major PDF viewer not have a command to bookmark a specific page?! Okular has it right in the main menu where you can't miss it.

Okular: Add Bookmark command

Granted, most PDF viewers support hyperlinking to a specific page in a PDF file. For example you'd link from HTML by writing this:

<a href="book.pdf#23">Page 23 of 'Book'</a>

But where's the UI command to save your spot when you come to a stopping point in an enthralling page-turner like the ODF Specification (or perhaps some lighter fare like Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom)? Adobe Reader and Foxit Reader don't have this feature as a UI command, and I'm completely mystified by its absense after so many years.

Okular has these two features while the competition does not. In other respects, Okular is good if not spectacular. Therefore, Okular is hands-down my only desktop-based PDF viewer.

What's your favorite PDF viewer, and why?


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Comments (2)

My favorite is also Okular... Why? The fast startup and the fast rendering on complex documents (I have a document with a "confidential" across it - Okular is 10 times faster on it. Similar for pictures in documents).

Still two reasons to have Adobe:
1) It can print (Okular cannot do this for me?!)
2) Adobe can fill in documents

Hmm interesting.. I have only used Adobe Reader myself.. I generally don't often find myself wading through PDF's of large nature.. but I recently had some large D&D manuals in PDF form.. I find it difficult to read them at a desktop machine, but I suppose if I had a netbook/e- reader or some such thing, I might be more inclined to search out alternatives.. I can see why you would appreciate the table-of-contents-search