Image viewers belong to a software category where the quantity and quality of free programs makes it difficult to select just one product as a top pick. So, personal convenience will unavoidably appear as the ultimate factor for this review of free applications. And there's also the question of what exactly we mean by an image viewer.
Digital photography has become so widely available that most pictures these days will linger in a memory drive and will never be printed, because we can visualize them on screens. As a consequence, hundreds of tools are developed for the task, ranging from the ones that offer just the most basic handling to others with loads of features nobody will ever use. However, nowadays' average users are likely to demand some additional capabilities apart from the simple viewing and browsing functions.
Thus, many imaging applications overlap categories and we have a perfect example in photo organizers, where a viewer is obviously needed to manage picture collections. Therefore, the key points for this review should be based mainly on the aspects of loading speed, image quality, zooming capabilities, sorting options and other operations not directly related to image editing, tagging or organizing, although this is a definite advantage in most cases like the current Editors' Choice and a few competitors. But no program is perfect and if you need to make certain changes to your photos, you might find yourself using more than one app at the same time to meet specific requirements.
JPG is the most widely used file format for images today because of its quality/size ratio and is supported by every viewer I know of. Actually, it's the only file type allowed by some of them unless you pay for extras. Though it is quite old and others seem to do the job better, it has managed to prevail overwhelmingly, both online and in digicams. But there's a steadily increasing amount of people who shoot RAW in their quest for better image quality. Unfortunately, most camera manufacturers use their proprietary RAW formats, of course not supported by the others. Then, after being processed, those files are usually saved as TIF or other lossless formats, including Adobe DNG, Photoshop PSD, etc. On the other hand, we need a way to view those PNG or GIF files we download from the Internet occasionally. Therefore, compatibility is a point which can't be overlooked, since we have a variety of files that our ideal program should handle for viewing — and possibly converting them, too — without having to open a different application for each or the specific software bundled with the camera.
Perhaps the most important feature anyone could require from a viewer is an acceptable speed when loading and displaying images. In my opinion, any program that needs over 1 second to display JPGs like the ones produced by an average modern camera or smartphone is not worth the time to download and install it nor the disk space it takes. Note that file size (in bytes) as well as image dimensions (in pixels) all have an influence on speed, and hardware is another important factor. Obviously, the better your machine, the better the performance and loading times.
Some of these programs support video viewing, either by using their own player or your system's default player. The subject goes beyond the scope of this review, but I'll say you must have the proper codecs for the various video formats installed on your computer and this might be somewhat tricky to get done because you'll have to download and set up additional plug-ins, codec packs or even a separate application sometimes. Full HD, 4K and certain video formats usually require a lot of processing power to be displayed. The articles Understanding Codecs and Best Free Media Player are good readings to learn more.
[Doakio Editor's Note: This article was restored from Gizmo's Freeware archives as a service to the freeware community. Gizmo's Freeware provided high-quality, volunteer freeware reviews for decades. They shut down in July of 2021.]
Zoner Photo Studio Free A powerful and excellent program with lots of possibilities for you to take advantage of its many features.
License: Free (Limited features)
XnView The most versatile of all viewers to read over 500 types of graphic files and convert any of these to over 70 formats.
License: Free (Private/Educational use)
FastStone Image Viewer A fast and user-friendly image browser with its superb interface and some useful editing features.
Our Rating: 4.5
License: Free (Private/Educational use)
WildBit Viewer A competent image viewer with a full array of editing tools and a super powerful search function.
License: Free (Private/Educational use)
Nomacs – Image Lounge An open-source and cross-platform image viewer opens very large images easier than competitors.
License: Free (Open source)
I've tested a large number of other viewing applications (too many to be mentioned), but none of them made it to the top. Our readers have suggested many of those. When this is the case, I usually post a reply in the comments section with my reasons. Maybe your favorite program has already been discarded here, but feel free to submit any product you think might deserve a try. But please, try it yourself before and tell me what you like about it, instead of just posting a link. We have a lot of good apps here already, maybe too many for a readable article. Sometimes letting ones in and others out feels like splitting hairs. There are many decent ones out there and even Windows' built-in viewer performs acceptably when browsing through average images, although it is so limited. Now that everybody has lots of photos to deal with, one would expect some improvements in Microsoft's viewing app over the old W98 and XP in the successive OS's, but it's been very disappointing to find out neither Vista nor Windows 7, 8 or 10 were significantly better for the task so many years later, and such a bleak background is another spur for software developers. This article is going to be lengthy but it wouldn't be fair to end the review without mentioning some other freebies that offer quite remarkable features. (Thanks to everyone who let me know about them.)
Users who just want a very simple replacement for the default Windows photo viewer have a good alternative with Pictus (thanks to mrin for the suggestion), kind of what could be called a “pure viewer”. I used to recommend ACDSee Free for this position, mainly because of its impressive speed, but it has been discontinued, although it can still be found at several download sites. Anyway, Pictus has a few better features than ACDS, apart from being practically just as fast, and that's a lot to say! It displays pictures nearly instantaneously, no matter the image size, without needing lots of processing power, which makes it perfect for use in low-end computers. Even hard files like those huge PSDs or LZW-compressed TIFs are shown in a breeze, when they are usually a pain for other viewers to open. The interface is clean and the backdrop color can be customized in the settings menu, along with mouse behavior, rendering algorithm and a few other options. Since the program has no menu bar nor icons, it's operated mainly by right clicking and selecting the functions from the context menu, but it's quite user-friendly because there aren't many of them and they're clearly understandable. These include (very) basic sorting, picture orientation, renaming, wallpaper, and adjustments for brightness, contrast or gamma. You can use a few shortcuts, too. It supports 11 common formats, including animated GIF and PSD (no RAW), and adds the interesting ability to show their respective thumbnails in Windows Explorer, which is a very nice plus that might make some people (myself included) install the program even if they won't be using it. Besides, it can be made portable by placing a .ini file in the same folder as the main executable.
Pictus has a few drawbacks, however. It's just a sequential viewer like many others and it relies on Windows Explorer to access folders and files. No thumbnails or image lists are provided within the program and that means a limited navigation experience. I miss some more customization and an inexplicably lacking option to sort images by file type, apart from being able to use the arrows on the keyboard to browse through pictures without having to press the Alt key. Being a “pure viewer”, no changes or adjustments such as orientation or brightness can be made permanent because the program does not allow to save the modified files as any format whatsoever. On the contrary, those adjustments are always kept from one image to another and to the rest of them when browsing and they have to be reset manually; this may be convenient or not, but there should be an option to control that behavior. Another personal inconvenience is that the Esc key always closes the program. Apart from that, it seems the program hasn't been updated in a long time. Nevertheless, many users will consider these drawbacks as minor because what they really want is simplicity and good speed. Pictus is a champion at both.
Simplicity and speed are also key features in a very nice program called Nexus Image. This one was suggested by one of our readers (choifamilyipad) and it has turned out to be probably the most appealing of all the “simple” viewers to me because of its outstanding image quality and beautiful interface. Its opacity and color can be changed and a vertical thumbnail strip on the right makes browsing easier than in most other simple apps, where a linear previous/next file navigation must be followed. Folders are quickly accessed by double clicking the viewing window, selecting one from the tree and opening an image. Then you can use the functions either by right clicking and selecting them from the context menu or by means of conventional shortcuts, although mouse wheel zooming requires pressing Ctrl. Captions can be added to pictures, it can show EXIF information, supports common formats (not RAW, but does PSD and animated GIF), is available in many languages, has a light footprint on your system and is fully portable, with just a 2MB download.
On the downside, being so simple means there aren't many features to talk about (“Nothing to say. It's just a simple image viewer!”, in its dev's words). I miss some of them in particular, namely some kind of sorting options for the thumbnails, basic cropping, and permanent rotation applied to pics, as it is just temporary with this software. Again, if you're used to pressing Escape to close a fullscreen view of an image in other viewers, then you'll find it a personal annoyance in Nexus, because doing so here closes the program with no prompt and you just can't help pushing the damn key… Well, anyway, that's something you can live with, I guess. And this program is worth the trouble.
Honeyview, suggested by our reader Pliskin, is also one of those simple viewers sparing in features and focused on the basic viewing experience. It has a pleasant interface and a small set of intuitive controls for navigation. Most functions are accessed via right-click menu or keyboard shortcuts, and you can configure up to seven hotkeys to your liking. There are a few basic sorting options available and a slideshow mode. You will love its great speed even with big files and formats such as PSD or LZW-compressed TIF, which the majority of viewing programs take longer to open. Its image quality is also wonderful and RAW files are beautifully rendered if you choose not to display the embedded JPG, although this method is obviously slower. What is not slow at all is the rendering of images using the ICC color profile they may have attached; this is a remarkable aspect where nearly all the competitors are extremely weak, even the top ranking ones. Quite a lot of settings can be tweaked to fit your preferences, including background colors, mouse buttons' behavior, etc. The wheel can apply zoom in 10 or 1 percent steps. It supports 15 common file types (including animated GIF, which you can visualize frame by frame) as well as the main RAW formats, and is able to view images directly from compressed files without extracting them. It works on Win XP through W10 (32- and 64-bit) and a portable version is available.
The drawbacks are very few, assuming that the program is sparing in features. There's a thumbnail strip that shows a small preview but it's inside a menu and the design is awkward, as it won't let you click on a thumbnail to open the image. There are just two editing functions: rotate and resize, both sharing the same panel under the ‘Convert' heading. The output conversion can only be saved as JPG or PNG. There's no cropping whatsoever nor a desirable TIF output that would be really handy to save the program's nice rendition of RAW files. When you are browsing, any eventual rotation is just temporary, but if you use the rotation commands, whatever pics you display after that will appear rotated, a peculiar all-or-nothing approach. Anyway, you can always set the preferences to autorotate based on EXIF info.
Xlideit is the fancy name of another product that can be included in that somewhat blurry category of “simple” viewers (thanks to Bhat59 for the suggestion). I guess such a name is a pun for its ability to go to the next or previous file in the folder when you click on a picture and slide it left or right. It's fast enough and very user-friendly. The first time you open the program it presents you with the settings, which are quite a lot and let you customize such aspects as window transparency, background color, mouse behavior, zoom options, thumbnail size and position, toolbars, slideshow, etc., although the default ones are perfectly good to go. If you've read this article so far, it should be evident by now that having thumbnails available is one of my favorite features for a good browsing experience. Xlideit has a thumbnail strip at the bottom of the window by default, though it can be placed on either side or set to auto mode, when it will just pop up with a touch of the mouse. Likewise, a built-in folder tree is another useful item to have and there's one here, saving us unnecesary clicks to find a desired folder. Right-click menus are very complete too and most functions can be accessed this way or by means of icons. I also like that resizable detached zoom window, a very interesting concept that could be considered as the reverse of the navigator that is found in many imaging programs, where a little rectangle moving over a reduced version encloses the portion of the picture that you've zoomed into in the main window. Xlideit does the opposite: you have the whole image in the main window and the zoomed version in the detached view, and moving the mouse around shows the corresponding section blown up. Of course, you can also use the zoom in the main window, and even with animated GIFs and videos! The most common image formats are supported, along with video, audio and several document formats with text and pictures, and they can be sorted in many different ways. Image files can also be rotated, resized and cropped, and this can be done in a batch. In addition, it's very lightweight and portable.
Although I haven't found many inconveniences in Xlideit, as a power user the main drawback for me is what it can't do, but this is something not applicable to unpretentious average users who just want a simple way to browse through their photos. Some of the few flaws include the following: no RAW or PSD formats are supported, zooming out won't go further than the ‘fit to window' size until you write the exact percentage inside the zoom widget (this one is not the same as the zoom window mentioned earlier), the delete button erases files with no prompt (they are sent to the recycle bin, fortunately), the Esc key always exits the program, and I miss a quick way to access a previously visited folder. As you can see, these are very minor drawbacks and then whether you like the program or not is just a matter of personal taste. Oh yes, and it's only available in English, but if you're reading this, it won't be a problem, I guess.
One of our former anonymous users suggested cam2pc and, after giving it a try, it has proved to be an excellent program in many aspects. As the name suggests, cam2pc provides a handy way to download pictures and videos from your digicam to your drives, allowing you to use lots of options for renaming, saving, etc., and has specific support for the widely used Canon EOS cameras (separate download). The interface is intuitive and easy to use, with a folder and thumbnail view that resembles FastStone. As with this, I recommend to turn the preview panel off, though thumbnail generation is really fast. Actually, speed is outstanding in almost every aspect of this app. The feature that impressed me most was its ability to quickly display LZW-compressed TIFs, something unusual in its competitors, although these perform better with Photoshop PSDs.
The only reason why I don't include cam2pc along with the top programs is that the freeware version lacks quite a lot of features that can only be found in its commercial sibling and which the others offer for free. But I guess most users could perfectly do without those.
Imagine is a very fast viewer vaguely resembling Irfan in its simplistic interface, though the number of features is lower. Wheel zooming also needs pressing the Ctrl key. Several instances of the program can be open at the same time, it lets you customize various mouse modes with different configurations and select any of them instantaneously to fit your workflow, allows frame extraction from animations, reads inside zip, rar and 7z archives, has multilanguage support, 64-bit versions, and is portable.
On the downside, it's quite limited in other areas; for instance, the editing and batch processing options. No RAW or video formats are supported. Sometimes a few Photoshop PSD files can't be read and an ‘out of memory' message appears when trying to open them, irrespective of their size and my lots of free RAM and processing power. But the app is an AWSOME performer with the PSDs that load properly and displays them nearly instantaneously once the thumbnail has been generated; an outstanding feature that not many viewers, free or commercial, can boast.
Picture Information Extractor Free (PIE) comes to this article after Panzer's suggestion and because it has nearly everything I think a viewer must have. Anyway, the developers insist mainly on the ability to visualize all the metadata embedded in pictures, which is undoubtedly another way of viewing them. EXIF, IPTC, XMP, keywords and other data are conveniently shown on a pane to the right of the screen when a file is selected. The main interface also displays a folder tree with a preview pane and the files can be sorted in various types of lists or thumbnails. The features include wheel zooming in fullscreen view, custom thumbnail size, powerful search, excellent import options, wonderful renaming capabilities, it reads RAW and PSD formats, deletes RAW+JPG files with one click, supports color management and has good image quality. As an outstanding plus, PIE is one of the very few programs that can rotate RAW files permanently and for some users this feature alone would make it worth the installation.
On the other side, this free version of PIE cannot save any changes to the metadata, which is the only cut compared to the commercial one, but quite significant. There are also a couple of flaws in important areas such as speed or zoom. No problem when you're surfing through average JPGs, TIFs, etc., but it takes some time to even change directories and access a folder full of big RAWs, and then another while to display each file in full screen. The zoom can't reach pixel level and, along with pan, it's a bit sloppy. Moreover, the wheel turn for zooming in or out works in the opposite way to the rest of viewers I've tried so far. I miss animated GIF support as well. But many users won't even notice these drawbacks.
Although their names look nearly identical, Imagina has nothing to do with Imagine, reviewed above. Actually, that's where similarities end. This application (‘a next-generation image viewer and editing tool', the developers claim) is a good representative of newer trends in this category, which pay greater attention to “fancy” interfaces and presentations to improve user experience. The main drawback with this is the usually high resource consumption and graphics card requirements. Imagina is a perfect example of the new concepts based around 3-D simulation, but much lighter on resources than others of this kind. Browsing speed isn't as fast either, even compared to “normal” viewers, and this is especially noticeable with bigger files. For instance, when opening some 18-megapixel JPGs the program clearly stays behind the top performers, though this shouldn't be an issue with most users.
There may be some things I really miss (more customization for certain basic aspects, a built-in folder tree, support for PSDs, more straightforward management of some files like TIFF, etc.) and many other reasons why my workflow as a photographer won't fit what Imagina proposes. But photo pros are only a few among the vast lot of digicam users who just shoot JPG. And these will love it! User experience is excellent and no other viewer I've seen shows that image quality or that zoom and pan smoothness. Both 2-D and 3-D graphics are amazing and even videos can be watched in this environment (with zooming and panning!). It offers state-of-the-art RAW support by using David Coffin's DCRAW along with its own algorithms, top quality editing functions, real color management and other useful tools. So many good things make it at least a must-try. (Requires .NET 3.0 or higher)
But the problem is that Imagina's development has been discontinued. Since it is an outstanding app, I'll keep it here for a while linking to the alternative download from Softpedia.
After some debate in the comments section, I decided to mention FastPictureViewer, but just because of one single feature. This product claims to be (and it might be) the fastest viewer ever, especially indicated for quick browsing and culling. It uses hardware to speed things up and requires a lot of system resources and graphic capabilities. It has a nice interface as well. Anyway, the program offers very few functions once the initial trial period expires and actually becomes limited to viewing JPGs and not much more than screening and tagging. It does support full color space awareness, though, and the unbeatable speed is a very strong argument in its favor.
Finally, one of our site users, Mythril, suggested two programs which work with a very different approach, but with a special focus on speed. These are Vjpeg and Osiva. I'll just quote Mythril's comments because they are right on spot (original 06/02/09): “Both work by opening images in a borderless window that you can drag around and zoom in/out at will, practically without any lag, and you can open as many images as you want at the same time. Both programs load very quickly, but don't have any features to speak of. Another drawback is that there doesn't even seem to be a way to cycle through images in a directory… Osiva is slightly better in that you can easily drag and drop a bunch of images and have it open all of them for a superquick overview”. I'll add they support very few file formats and feel a bit awkward to use precisely because they're so different.
Another reader, Bziur, also put forward First Impression, which works in a similar way without an apparent interface, just by using right-click menus and offering pretty much just what the name of the program suggests.
This entry in the Wikipedia features a chart comparing a considerable amount of free and commercial image viewers. Most of these products are also given detailed individual entries and include links to their websites.
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