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Nov 222010
 

This article is intended to give the average home user some insight into the two most popular PDF readers. Folks in a corporate environment or that do more than just read PDF’s will obviously have different requirements and / or constraints. Please take that into consideration when reading this article.

* This article has been updated on 11/23/2010. Please see the bottom section entitled *UPDATE*

Adobe Reader has long been under fire by Geeks as bloated and full of well documented security issues. With the release of Adobe Reader X comes a new “sandboxing” feature that Adobe refers to as “Protected Mode“. This has many folks wondering if it is time to give Adobe Reader another shot. These days most Geeks I know wouldn’t let Adobe Reader anywhere near their computers (myself included). Many of those folks prefer Foxit Reader which they feel has a smaller footprint, uses less resources, and many claim to be more secure (at least in the past). I also use Foxit Reader and I agree with the first two assertions but I’m never really sure about the third (though it certainly has fewer published exploits).

Given that I haven’t installed Adobe Reader in some time. I thought I would examine this new “more secure” version and compare it to Foxit.

Where to get them:

Adobe Reader X – Please do not attempt to download Adobe Reader from Adobe. It will attempt to install a download manager, install a  freakin’ McAfee product on your computer, and install Adobe Air. Best to get the stripped down Adobe Reader from Major Geeks. (You can manually download the latest Adobe Reader from their FTP server.)

Foxit Reader – Also get Foxit Reader from Major Geeks. You’ll have to dodge the bloatware during install.

Download sizes:

Extracted size for Adobe Reader X (I always try to extract an .exe file into a new folder and install from there. 7-zip does the job nicely):

The install:

Adobe Reader (if you get the stripped down version) is a simple one-click install with no options other than the install folder:

Foxit Reader – The install is my biggest gripe with Foxit. It requires you to navigate a minefield of bloatware to get the job done. Below are all the install steps:

Uncheck everything and click Decline: This is a little trickery here.

At first glance most users would assume unchecking the boxes and then clicking “I Accept” would get them to the next step without the search bar being installed.

Most users have also become accustomed to “Decline” meaning the setup program will exit.

Choose custom.

Options as I choose them:

whew!

Installed size below. (221/11=20.090909)

Sneaky, sneaky. Adobe Reader has two items that startup with Windows, no thank you:

From what I understand, Adobe ARM is the updater (I can find no official documentation on this). The only program I allow to update itself is anti-virus so I’ve disabled this.

Adobe Reader Speed Launcher:

According to Adobe “When you install Reader, the Speed Launcher program is installed into your computer’s Common Startup group. The Speed Launcher shortens the time needed to start Reader. Although this is not recommended, you can disable Speed Launcher by dragging its icon out of the Startup folder.” Well that would be great if I read a ton of PDF’s every day. How often do you read PDF’s? Perhaps if the program weren’t so bloated it wouldn’t need this?

System Resources

On my computer I noticed no real difference in the speed of opening the files.  Below is what Process Explorer has to show. Adobe Reader is using twice the resources:

Security

Both applications offer some form of security. You can read about Foxit Reader security here and there is a ton of info to be had on Adobe Reader security here. Adobe Reader X now features sandboxing technology. For those who do not know, sandboxing is running a program in isolation so that it cannot effect the surrounding environment, much like a sandbox for children keeps the sand from spilling out in the yard (hehe, at least until the kids start playing in there!). Adobe’s new sandboxing feature would seem to be more effective than Foxit’s security. I reckon only time will tell.

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The reason I said earlier that I’m not sure if one is ” more secure” than the other is this. Exactly what does “more secure” mean? Does “more secure” on paper or in a stats column equal “more secure” in real life? Is / was Foxit Reader really more secure or did Adobe Reader just get attacked more? Most exploits target specific programs. In this instance it seems that Adobe Reader receives the majority of attention from hackers and crackers. I would assume this is because of its popularity. If Foxit received the same attention would it still be thought of as “more secure”? Is a house that is unlocked but never gets burgled more secure than the locked house that does get burgled? For geeks this is the old “security through obscurity” argument. I’ve never been sure there is a correct answer to this.

Conclusion

The purpose of this article was never to give a recommendation of one program over the other but just to give some insight into these two programs.

Yes, Foxit use less system resources. If you have plenty of disk space and 4GB of ram or more do you care? I’ve heard valid arguments on both sides and that is up to you to decide what is best for you.

Adobe Reader X’s new security feature deserves some serious consideration for the security conscious.

I do find it disconcerting that both Adobe and Foxit are insistent on trying to install stuff you neither want nor need on your systems. In particular I would call out Foxit for using trickery in the Foxit Search bar install step, it is just plain wrong. Geeks know to use custom installs and pay attention to every screen during the process the average computer user does not.

Since I know someone will ask. I will be sticking with Foxit for now. Although security is a consideration I want to give Adobe Reader X some time to really be tested in the wild before I commit to using it.

I know there are other popular PDF readers. Before you comment on “I use XYZ reader” or “I prefer XYZ reader” please tell why and remember the context and points made in this article.

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*UPDATE* (11/23)

Leonard Rosenthol (PDF Architect, Adobe Systems) stopped by the blog and added a comment (#3):
“a few things…
1 – Adobe Reader X takes up LESS disk space than Adobe Reader 9. We made it smaller!
2 – Adobe Reader X is larger than other viewers because it’s the only one that supports the entire PDF (ISO 32000-1) standard as well as the other PDF standards (PDF/A, PDF/X and PDF/E). It ensures that ANY PDF that you receive can be viewed and processed according to the standards.
3 – The reason for two processes is the sandbox. You will see the same thing with any sandboxed application, such as MSIE or Google Chrome.
Thanks for listening and enjoy the new Reader.”

I hunted down his contact info and shot off a quick email and he replied. To make it easier to read I inserted his answers between my questions:

Hi Leonard,
I posted a blog post about Adobe Reader X vs. Foxit Reader here: http://www.tweakhound.com/blog/?p=1565
1 – Someone posted a comment using your name so I wanted to ensure that it was indeed you.

LR: “Yes, it was indeed me – thanks for checking!!  And happy to answer more questions.”

2 – I would like to officially ask a few questions to add to the blog if you have the time. The questions are:

Q1 – You said that the reason for the size for Adobe Reader X is so that it can display all types of PDF’s. I would assume this compatibility is the reason it also uses more resources? Can you expand on this?

LR: “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to keep the actual RAM & processor usage down to minimum with Reader X.  If all you are doing is reading “office-style” documents – it’s pretty lightweight.  We also try to take advantage of hardware (like multiple CPUs and GPUs) when available, in order to improve performance and sometimes that means a bit more RAM usage for caching and threading…but as you know, those are always the tradeoffs…”

Q2 – I understand the wanting full compatibility for all PDF’s in Adobe Reader X. However I’m not sure that most home users need all those features. Have you ever considered a “lite” version?

LR: “We’ve talked about a Lite version, but there remains a big roadblock to doing it….What happens when the user gets their first PDF that requires one of the “heavy” features?  Do you dynamically downloaded it – and make them wait?  What if they are somewhere w/o a connection (or it’s an expensive connection)?    If you have thoughts on this, we’d certainly love to hear them…”

Q3 – The test machine was a dual-core with 4GB of RAM (Win7 64-bit) and I noticed no difference with Adobe Reader Speed Launcher disabled or enabled. Do you feel this feature is necessary?

LR: “Speed Launcher is useful for launch #2, 3 (etc.).  The first time you launch Reader X, Speed Launcher isn’t involved – it only gets involved in subsequent launches.  So to test, you really need to launch & quit, re-launch & quit, etc.    Is it necessary for all users?  Of course not.  Does it help users that open up Reader (or have it opened via their browser) multiple times a day?  Yes!”

Q4 – Adobe Reader X’s sandboxing is unique among PDF readers. Could you explain, in layman’s terms, why this is important?

LR: “Short answer to Sandboxing is that it keeps any potential malicious code inside and prevents it from actually doing any damage to the system.”

Q5 – Anything else you would like to add?

LR: “Another area you might want to look at, as it something that many users do, is viewing PDFs in a browser.  The user experience (integration, performance, etc.) of Reader X in this context is SO MUCH BETTER than any other option out there.  In fact, FoxIt JUST THIS WEEK introduced their support for even running in this context…”

I would like to thank Mr. Rosenthol for stopping by and for answering some questions. Very cool!

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