Viewing PDFs in a Browser on a Mac

As a Mac user, one of the more annoying issues I frequently encounter is funky PDF handling in Firefox and Safari. For instance:

  • Adobe doesn’t make a version of Adobe Reader that’s compatible with Firefox on Mac OS X
  • Adobe Reader is only supported in 32-bit versions of Safari on OS X (Snow Leopard ships with a 64-bit version of Safari)
  • Safari has built-in handling of PDFs, but if Adobe Reader is installed — whether it’s actually working in Safari or not — it will turn off Safari’s native PDF handling by default.

Here are some things you can do to get PDFs to display in your browser(s).

Restore Safari’s built-in PDF handling

If your Safari browser isn’t using OS X’s native PDF handling, Adobe Reader may be overriding it. Here’s how to fix it:

  1. Launch Adobe Reader
  2. Go to Preferences > Internet
  3. Deselect “Display PDF in browser using…”
  4. Click OK

Enable PDF support in Firefox

Mozilla has a handy reference for this topic.  Here’s what they say:

Adobe does not yet maintain a plugin for viewing PDF files within Firefox for computers with Mac OS X. To view PDFs in Firefox:

I’ve installed the Firefox PDF Plugin on my Mac (Firefox 3.6), and it works great. It uses the Mac’s built-in PDF handling, so it’s a very small plugin runs very quick.

Caveats and an editorial

Using the Mac’s built-in PDF support means you won’t be able to take advantage of some of Adobe Reader’s new features, such as scripting, portfolios, and SWF support.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to use the PDF format for its traditional purpose: reading print-based documents online.  Plus, Adobe Reader currently requires 290MB of space on the hard drive. I can live without the new features and would prefer to use my 290MB of space for other things.

In general, I recommend avoiding Adobe Reader on a Mac because of its poor support in Firefox and Safari, its incredible bloat, and the seemingly daily announcements of major security vulnerabilities. Most of the security issues have been directly related to the scripting functionality and other new features. If a lite version of Adobe Reader were offered — one that removes the bloat, eschews these new features, and simply lets us view standard PDF documents — I’d be more than happy to use it.

Shameless plug

Need to embed a PDF in an HTML page? Try PDFObject. It’s free, tiny, and works much like SWFObject (the two projects are unrelated).

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