Windows 10 - change default PDF program

Microsoft needed to execute flawlessly on a number of things for Windows 10 to be an inarguable success. High on the list were two things: making the upgrade process smooth and uneventful; and creating the first impression that Windows 10 is both familiar and slightly improved over your previous version of Windows. It’s done pretty well but hardly flawlessly.

On the first point, there have been too many problems for too many people after their Windows 10 upgrades, ranging from complete failure to a vast array of smaller problems with displays, printers, USB devices, and much more. Okay, there’s a lot of PC hardware in the world and it’s hard to support the incredible variety of equipment that we have lashed together in hundreds of millions of different configurations. Great. We’ll be gentle about that.

But Microsoft is also creating a poor first impression of Windows 10 with changes to default programs driven by poor judgment and hubris, not technical defects.

One of the unforgivable sins in modern computing is to change the way programs behave without permission. We loathe the companies that change the home page in our Internet browser, or that add toolbars, or that install programs that take over some function that was being handled just fine without them. When you upgrade to Windows 10, Microsoft is changing two fundamental defaults without any warning. It’s really irritating.

Default browser

When you choose “Express Install” during the Windows 10 upgrade, Microsoft sets its unfinished Edge Internet browser as your default browser. Edge starts opening up when you click on links in email messages or documents. That’s a bit unnerving because Edge’s appearance is completely different than Internet Explorer (no Home button, no Favorites bar, different icons for Favorites and other functions), with no particular obvious advantage. The first impression is immediately made worse when you discover that all your Favorites are missing. If you keep using Edge, you’ll quickly run into an even deeper problem when you try to install LastPass or the Acrobat toolbar or anything else that requires extensions – technology that Edge will not support for many months more.

I’ve written instructions here about how to set Internet Explorer or (better) Chrome as your default Internet browser, and make Edge disappear. I recommend that all new Windows 10 users follow those instructions.

Default PDF viewer

Windows 10 - Edge set as default PDF viewer

On your Windows 7 or 8 computer, when you click on a PDF – the universal office file format – it opens in Adobe Acrobat, or Acrobat Reader, or Foxit Reader, or whatever program you have installed for PDFs. You’re accustomed to that. It makes you happy.

After you upgrade to Windows 10, when you click on a PDF, it opens in the Edge Internet browser.

“PDFs open in the Edge Internet browser?” I hear you say. “But that makes no sense. Did that happen on purpose?” You are right to ask those questions. They are good and reasonable questions. Presumably a number of people at Microsoft signed off on a change that is causing computer users in businesses all over the world to be incredibly pissed off.

It’s not as if Edge is particularly good at displaying PDFs. It has a bare minimum of controls in the upper right to zoom in and out, print, and save the PDF. It doesn’t offer any way to send the PDF as an email attachment with Outlook because the Share command in Edge doesn’t include Outlook, which is another problem with Edge, come to think of it. Did I mention that Edge is quite a mess?

How to set the default PDF viewer in Windows 10

Click on Start, type in Default Programs, and click on Default Programs (Desktop App) when it appears at the top.

Your goal is the Default Programs section of Control Panel, shown below. There is also a Defaults section in the new Windows 10 Settings screen that’s separate from Control Panel. If you wind up there, click on “Set defaults by app.”

Windows 10 - set default programs

Click on Associate a file type or protocol with a program. Scroll down the list and highlight the line for the .PDF extension. Click the Change program button and choose your preferred program from the list.

Windows 10 - change default PDF viewer

That should be all that’s required.

If you use the full version of Adobe Acrobat, you can get the same result and perhaps fix other problems by clicking instead on Set your default programs, highlighting Acrobat in the list, and clicking on Set this program as default.

This one really bothers me. It feels arbitrary and invasive. I’ve never seen Microsoft acknowledge it with pride. It just happens. If there’s a choice during a custom install to avoid it, I can’t find it. If you do a custom installation of Windows 10, you are launched into a long series of screens with too many choices, mostly about privacy options, so it’s not impossible that the choice of PDF viewer is buried in there somewhere, but I don’t wish the custom install process on anyone other than serious privacy advocates or curious geeks with free time.

I have mounds of accumulated good will towards Microsoft built up during years of (mostly) steady and wise stewardship of their role as guardians of personal computing. Those mounds of good will are shrinking faster than glacial ice. I expect smarter choices. Get control of your web browser and your PDFs back so you can enjoy the good parts of Windows 10!

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