How to Open PDFs on a Mac with Preview instead of Acrobat Reader

Updated July 16th, 2023.

If Acrobat Reader has taken over your PDFs you’re being doubly punished. First punishment: Adobe’s punishing your by making you use Acrobat Reader (or Acrobat Reader DC, or Acrobat Reader Pro DC, or maybe an older version of Acrobat Reader). Every version of Acrobat Reader is misery to use: slow to launch, clumsy to operate, thousands of indecipherable options in the Preferences dialog, and very “un-Mac-like.”

I wouldn’t make my dog use Acrobat Reader. If I had a dog.

Second punishment: by using Acrobat, you’re NOT using Apple’s built-in, elegant, powerful, joy-to-use Preview app. Which means you’re punishing yourself. Using the Preview app is a treat, with plenty of groovy features under the hood should you care to go deep. Most of the time, though, all we want to do is double-click a PDF and have a look at it. Acrobat and Preview can both do it, but Preview does it faster and nicer, so let’s see how we can make that happen.

Here’s another reason to use Preview: in many cases, when Acrobat can’t print a document, Preview can. I see this every so often, especially with PDFs that have a lot of pages. The print job times out from Acrobat, but works perfectly (to the same printer) when the document is opened with Preview.

How to change the app that opens when you double-click a particular PDF

  • First, find a PDF. Don’t open it, just find one.
  • Next, click on it ONCE, and then go to the File menu and choose “Get Info.” Shortcut: ⌘-I (that’s a capital I, not the number 1.)
  • Look for the part that says “Open with:” It might look like this:
PDF's Get Info window showing this document will open with Acrobat Reader.
PDF’s Get Info window showing this document will open with Acrobat.

All you need to do is change the “Open with:” to say “Preview.” It will look like this:

PDF's Get Info window showing this document will open with Preview.
PDF’s Get Info window showing this document will open with Preview.

How to set the default app for all PDFs

Obviously it would not be very much fun to have to do this for every PDF on your Mac, one at a time. So don’t do it that way. Instead, use that “Change All…” button and change them all. You’ll get a box asking you to confirm.

Dialog box asking whether you're sure you want to change the default app to Preview for PDFs.
Dialog box asking whether you’re sure you want to change the default app to Preview for PDFs.

Of course, if you make a mistake and choose the wrong app you can just Get Info again and fix it. Easy.

How to open a PDF with some other app, on a one-time basis, on the fly

If you have the occasional document that you want to open with some other app, generate a list of possible openers by Control-clicking (or right clicking) the document’s icon and choosing “Open With…”. Then choose an app from the pop-out list. Like so:

Control-click a PDF icon, then Open With...
Control-click a PDF icon, then Open With…

Doing the “Open With” via Control-click opens your document with the app you choose that time only. If you want to make your choice permanent, Get Info and change it there.

One more thing: if you accidentally open Acrobat, and you get this dialog box:

Acrobat wants to take over your PDFs. Don't let them! Just say No!
Acrobat wants to take over your PDFs. Don’t let them! Just say No!

… check the “Do not show this message again” box, then click “No.” Those Adobe rats, they’ll keep trying to hijack your PDFs. Don’t let them. You’ll be happier with Preview. Trust me.

Note: on occasion, you may receive a PDF that has to be filled in, like a form. If the form was created with Acrobat, you may be forced into filling in the form with Acrobat as well, because Adobe has their own way of doing things, and Preview might not know how to handle it. In that case, do the Control-click thing, and open that particular PDF with Acrobat Reader so you can fill it in. Here is a link to the free Acrobat Reader page on Adobe’s site, in case you need it.

Copyright 2008-2024 Christian Boyce. All rights reserved.

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34 thoughts on “How to Open PDFs on a Mac with Preview instead of Acrobat Reader

Add yours

  1. Hey Christian!

    This is fine, but, what about the ability to “Fill & Sign” that Adobe provides?

    More and more this is becoming the standard way to complete & sign documents.

    Can Preview handle this?

    1. Those are the times that you reach for the Control key and open it with (ugh) Acrobat Reader. You can put a real signature into Preview, but that’s not how the Fill & Sign stuff works. So sometimes you have to use Acrobat after all. I debated writing about this and actually had a paragraph at the end about it– I think I’ll have to put it back in.

  2. Hey!

    When the Federal Government made pdf’s their standard for archiving etc.,
    back in the early 2000’s, that made Adobe #1 for anything related to it.

    I agree with your criticism’s though. Adobe Reader settings are sluggish.

    But it does do what it says it will do, albeit using a lot of resource!


    1. I just don’t like using Acrobat– clumsy, slow, non-Mac-like. PDF is an open standard, but I think Adobe takes some liberties with it. I’m sure you know, but other readers might not: PDF stands for “Portable Document Format.” Seems to me that Adobe is not taking the “Portable” part to heart. They do the same sort of thing with Photoshop: they promote an interface that is neither Mac nor Windows, thinking it’s better to be “consistent” across platforms when the reality is, from a user’s point of view, cross-platform consistency is almost without value. To a user, the important thing is that the app takes advantage of a platform’s strengths. When they make an app that looks the same on two different platforms they dumb it down to the lowest common denominator.

  3. Hey!

    I agree 100%.

    No question: Adobe documents are anything but “portable” in that
    they are not available to be crossed into MS Word, Excel or other

    But thats capitalism for you!

    Propaganda by re-definition of words!

  4. I knew there would be a simple answer for this – just had to find you. Thank you!! I’ve book marked this for future reference.

  5. This article was a godsend. Nasty adobe acrobat wasted my entire afternoon yesterday. Thank you for making it so simple!

  6. Another trick that works (some fillable files won’t open in Preview even after changing the default) is to open in Acrobat Reader then choose to View in Full Screen Mode. From there you can use the screen capture (command + shift + 4) to capture the document and open it via Preview! The only downside is that the fillable areas will still be highlighted. But it works like a charm 😉

  7. Hi Thanks Christian Boyce, much appreciated. However, it seems that Acrobat has pushed Preview into a gray pane that cannot be opened in Mail attachment view. It has everything listed to open except my beautiful adored Preview App. When I click on other, the grayed version of Preview appears. Preview gray is stored in a file names Application 2, which is absurd. I have all updates from Mac Big Sur 11.4
    I am beginning to detest Adobe Acrobat DC Reader. I know it signs things, but people use other software for that, like solicitors etc. Keep up the good work. Marie

  8. I finded (ban irregular English) it simple just to right-click on the Adobe icon in Applications in Finder (selecting my hard-drive) and then moving Adobe into the Trash. First double-click on a *.pdf on my Mac opened it in Preview. Since I never use Adobe Acrobat to sign anything, I decided I just don’t need it. Deleting it also frees my Mac mini up a bit since Adobe isn’t automatically loading whenever I start the computer. As a parting side-note, Flash seems to be rife with security problems which is why it’s being deprecated by most power-users.

    1. That also works, but sometimes you do need Acrobat Reader, so I like to keep it around. I recently had a PDF that would not print from Preview– it just tied up the printer, and then nothing came out– but it did work from Acrobat. I suspect the PDF was made using Acrobat and something about it wasn’t quite standard. It was something with a form that needed filling out. Anyway, it printed fine from Acrobat. So it’s good to keep Acrobat around, in reserve.

      1. I use Word–on a Mac which may be some kind of blasphemy in Apple World, or would be if Apple had made MacWrite a competing app instead of apparently abandoning it years ago–to import *.pdf-s, which I then e-sign with no apparent legal difficulties. However, since they’re all e-mailed documents–“electonically signed this [enter day and date and typed signature]–I’m required to mainain me e-mail security. As a retired individual living alone with NO ONE ELSE EVER using my computers, especially my iPhone(s), this isn’t a problem. I haven’t tried it for years as I just prefer the greater consistency, better support, and less frustration of paying Office’s subscription fees, but I formerly used OpenOffice with everything from WordPerfect to *.pdf to Word files with no problems. So, it may not be accurate to say that one has to rely on Adobe for some situations where it is necessary to edit/alter or sign a document (-: the phrase “…or…” indicates the logical use of “or” where either condition being true, or both being true, indicates the truth of the complete “or” statement, “and/or” being ?abusive? ?excessive? !unneeded-by-those-like-myself-with-a-basic-5th-grade-education-in-logic!. Not pointing any fingers; just sayin’ :-).

  9. True! I agree with your arguments: using the un-mac-like application = punishing mac user and certain application tries to take pdf as its own, haha.

  10. I just found this — a couple of years after you wrote it. I KNEW there had to be a way to change the default from Adobe, and now it’s done. Adobe infiltrates computers like COVID. I hate it. Anyway, thank you! -HH

  11. As a psychotherapist switching to all online and phone sessions I need to email necessary forms to clients to have them filled in, signed and returned to me. Preview does not build fillable forms. Is my only choice then to go through Adobe Acrobat for that set-up and function – ugh?

    1. For compatibility reasons I would go with Acrobat. However, maybe an online form would be even better. Eliminate the back-and-forth of email. Fill in a form online, press a button, the results go to you, and that is that.

  12. The problem with using online forms–provided you don’t write, and take responsibility for their functioning, especially their security yourself–is that you ARE trusting someone else with sensitive data. As a former–very, very briefly–practicing member of the emotional/mental health field, I’m all too aware of the many abuses that can or do occur with client records, many with no intentional misuse, just arising from lack of knowledge.

    1. Interesting. I wonder whether email with an attachment is any more secure in this regard. Mail passes through (and probably stays) on the sender’s email server, and ends up on the recipient’s server, where it is unlikely to be encrypted. Maybe it’s encrypted in transit (depends on the email services involved), maybe it isn’t, and almost for sure it’s not encrypted once it gets to the server. So, with an email we still have to trust someone, same as with filling in a form. This whole internet business is full of privacy risks, no matter what you do!

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