Linux PDF viewers

30 Nov/09

Today a loyal reader sent me a message saying he enjoyed the Alternative Linux web browsers article and was hoping I could apply the same idea to PDF viewers. The truth of the matter is that nearly every PDF viewer in Linux is an alternative. Yes we Linux users do get to enjoy Acrobat Reader to view PDF files in, but that is often not found in the default repositories and, in some cases, a real pain to get features like printing to work properly. Fortunately there are plenty of alternatives that offer solid viewing of PDF documents.

In this review I am going to highlight four different viewers: ePDFViewer, Evince, Okular, and XPDF. Each of these tools offers a different take on the same task. You may decide to drop Acrobat Reader for one of these, or you may go scrambling back to what most would call the Industry Standard.



Figure 1

ePDFViewer is a lightweight viewer that uses the GTK+ and Poppler libraries. Effectively, ePDFViewer is a clone of Evince, minus the GNOME libraries. The latter fact is nice, because it makes ePDFViewer much more portable than Evince. And because it shares a somewhat similar interface with Evince, it is quite simple to use. The biggest problem with ePDFViewer is that it is almost too stripped down.

As you can see (In Figure 1) I am viewing a collection of Ghacks Linux articles in PDF format. If I open that same collection up in, say, Evince I will see a sidebar containing a thumbnail index of the pages in that document. If I open up the Index in ePDFViewer I get nothing. So in order to find a particular page in ePDFViewer you have to start scrolling until you find the page you are looking for.


Figure 2

Figure 2

Evince is the default document viewer for the GNOME desktop, and with good reason. Although not nearly as robust and feature-rich as Acrobat Reader, Evince is clean, stable, is perfectly integrated with the desktop, and doesn’t require any work to get printing to function properly.

As you can see, in Figure 2, Evince automatically opens the index for your document so finding a particular page is simple. And whereas ePDFViewer is only a PDF viewer, Evince can handle the following document types:

  • PDF
  • Postscript
  • djvu
  • tiff
  • dvi

There is also optional support for other document types as well as planned support for MS Powerpoint documents and many other formats. Unfortunately Evince does not have any of the more power-user options offered by Acrobat Reader. But for pure PDF viewing, Evince is a solid entry.


Figure 3

Figure 3

Okular is to KDE what Evince is to GNOME. But Okular takes PDF viewing to a few newer heights on the Linux desktop. Not only can you view your PDF documents, you can:

  • Copy selections to the clipboard, which can then be pasted into other documents.
  • Add bookmarks to documents.
  • Zoom specific areas of a document.
  • Annotate your PDF documents.

Although I am fond of the simplicity of Evince, Okular is the far superior PDF viewer for the Linux desktop. It offers many of the power-user features offered by Acrobat Reader, without having the instability issues.


Figure 4

Figure 4

Now we’re going back in time, back to the days when X11 was in its Linux infancy and the desktop Widgets were more UNIX-like than Windows-like. For those who have never experienced old-school Linux or UNIX, XPDF is a different beast all together. Although XPDF’s lack of a modern interface will take you by surprise, the stability shouldn’t. The biggest problem most will have with XPDF is getting used to the interface. When XPDF first opens you will have what looks like a typical, old-school X11 Window with no obvious means of working with a document (save for the navigation toolbar at the bottom.) In order to open a document you have to right click an empty spot in the main window, which will reveal a menu that allows you to open and manipulate your document.

Final thoughts

If I had to choose which of these tools was best suited for use as modern PDF viewer I would, without hesitation, select Okular. Not only is Okular as stable as the other offerings, it offers far more features which allows it to compete (and in many ways defeat) Acrobat Reader.

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