Sumatra PDF - Speed, elegance, efficiency

Updated: December 10, 2023

When I wrote my article on how Windows 11 is still pointless, a wave of nostalgia hit me. I remembered the time of greater simplicity in the computer world, the age of BartPE and UBCD4WIN, the days of portable apps. Companies used to take pride in creating tools that could run live, standalone, on someone's machine, and be moved about at a whim. So I went rummaging through my catalog of oldies, including PortableApps, and then I remembered I've not really written much about Sumatra PDF, as in ... ever.

Sure, I did mention it here and there, but I've never given it a proper review. After all, we're talking about a super-simple, super-lightweight, free, open-source document viewer, capable of opening PDF, CHM, EPUB, MOBI, FB2, XPS, and even PS files. No Javascript nonsense, no fancy actions. Simple file viewing. All right, let's talk in some more depth.

Teaser

Grab, enjoy blistering speed

Sumatra can be installed, or you can use it in its portable form. Download, run. The program is fast, and reliable. I decided to try it with my own Linux kernel crash book, to see what gives. A respectable book, some 182 pages long, with roughly 100 images in it. Fair deal. This little program handled the document without any issues, and rendered everything 100% correctly, including the transparent logo on the first page.

Now, it does look a bit spartan, and the "hamburger" menu plus a tiny toolbar is all you have in terms of interaction, but frankly, you don't need much more, most of the time. Sumatra lets you display your documents in many different ways, including the side-by-side, two-page book view.

Working

Book view

The best part about the program is its somewhat nerdy command palette. You can invoke it with Ctrl + K, or through the "main" menu, but it basically exposes all of the commands/functions that the program can do, so you can use them yourself. In other words, Sumatra can do a great deal, but there isn't a corresponding UI button for every option. Like say, annotations!

Command list

Annotations, edit

Annotations in use

I was able to add a handful, reposition them, change text, color, border size, and alike. It was somewhat clunky work, but if you consider the fact Sumatra is a tiny, tiny program, only about 8 MB in size, an extended MP3 song if you will, then the list of capabilities is more than impressive.

Translations

There's more, of course. Select text, translate it. Yup, Sumatra lets you submit selected portions of document text to Google or DeepL, and it can also search for selected text on Google and Bing. This can be useful if you work with documents in foreign languages, or you need to look up a specific technical phrase, for instance. It's also entirely up to you whether to use this functionality. Very cool, though.

Translate

Options

The one thing "missing" is a fully fledged UI. The one you have is easy to navigate, though. In the name of its minimalistic spirit and extreme frugality, Sumatra sacrifices some of the everyday conveniences, like a full-size menu, or an extensive settings panel. There's not much to configure. By and large, the program focuses on viewing and reading, and everything else is truly optional.

Menu

Options

Conclusion

Is Sumatra the holy grail of PDF reading? Perhaps not, but it comes very close to it. The program is simple, portable, free. It works reliably. It's fast, and inherently secure, simply because it does not support a lot of the pointless stuff that many other bloated PDF readers do, like say Javascript and such. Interactive documents, nope, not here. You need to worry a bit less when opening strange files from strangers. Within reason, of course.

Sumatra also surprises with some of its (rough) extra perks. The command palette really lets you go wild, but it does require some discipline, patience, and above all, expertise. That said, you can enjoy some fancy, semi-pro functionality. And always remember, if things get tough, this program is still smaller than a fair number of songs you have on your CD player, w00t. Annotations, translations, robustness, speed. There you have it. Should you ever build your own toolbox of computerized must-have goodies, I suggest you chuck Sumatra into it, and keep it for a rainy day. We're done here, fellow Internetians.

Cheers.