<canvas> element. Developers, therefore, appreciate PDF.js for the simplicity of its dependencies as well as how basic UI elements can be easily restyled via the project CSS and HTML files.
Devs will often embed PDF.js to enable web viewing capabilities in their apps.
However, as a vendor of a commercial PDF SDK, we hear from customers who come to us seeking an alternative after implementing PDF.js and later discovering that it cannot meet their needs. To help you avoid making the same mistakes, here are some useful tips and perspectives sourced from real-world PDF.js deployments to help in your PDF.js evaluation.
We wanted to keep our analysis as objective as possible. So we did our research. And what the facts show is that PDF.js works pretty good in some situations, and in others, it may not be ideal.
When evaluating PDF.js, here are a few criteria you may wish to consider:
- Out-of-the-box features
- Complexity of adding and supporting features
- Supported browsers
- Text select and text search UX
- Project status and trajectory
- Accuracy, reliability, and speed
Read the rest of this article for detailed answers -- or skip to the end to see our findings on when and where PDF.js works best, based on the experiences of our customers.
linkFunctionality and Features
What you get out of the box with PDF.js are the following three layers to allow for basic PDF rendering and viewing:
- A core layer to interpret binary PDF content via an HTML5 Web Worker. (Engaging with this layer is considered advanced usage as it requires an advanced understanding of the PDF spec.)
- A display interface to render a PDF page into an HTML
<canvas>element and extract page information.
- A ready-to-use PDF viewer that supports basic features like search, rotate, print, page thumbnails, and so on.
linkA PDF Reader Only
One crucial thing to bear in mind is that PDF.js was designed as a PDF reader only; therefore, it does not support features that require editing of PDFs such as direct annotation, page manipulation, and redaction -- as emphasized in the FAQ:
And on Github:
linkOut of Scope and Unsupported Features
As a result, some features are categorized as outside the scope of a PDF reader. These are not given as much attention by the main project contributors. Other features are unsupported because the open-source community is still working on them.
|Form filling||Open Issue for 3 years|
|Direct annotation (Add, edit, and remove)||Out of scope|
|Page manipulation (Add, merge, and remove)||Out of scope|
|Signatures||Open for 7 years|
|Toggleable visual layers (via OCGs)||Open 8 years|
|Pinch zoom for mobile||Open 6 years|
|Night mode||Open 7 years|
|Advanced Rendering Features||Status|
|Knockout groups||Open 6 years|
|Overprint simulation||Open 3 years|
|Color profile management||Open 6 years|
linkBrowser Behavior and Support
PDF.js has the advantage (and disadvantage) of relying on the browser for rendering.
This means PDF.js can initialize very quickly compared to many other PDF web viewers which must download and initialize their entire PDF rendering package.
However, because PDF.js relies on the browser, results may vary according to the browser, as each may handle specific fonts, images, and graphics differently. PDF.js also relies on HTML “extensions” to support some missing graphics features -- with uneven adoption across different browsers.
We’ve found that PDF.js performs best on Mozilla Firefox (naturally) less well on Safari and Chrome, and weakest on Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer. Many older browsers are not supported:
|IE 10 and below||No||None|
|Safari 8 and below||No||None|
|Android 4 and below||No||None|
Table from the PDF.js FAQ.
Therefore, PDF.js will prove satisfactory if your users work on the latest versions of Chrome and Firefox, and less satisfactory should your users work in IE 11 or older browsers, or on older mobile devices.
linkSupported File Types
PDF.js only opens PDF files. Any other format, such as MS Office documents, .txt, and images, will all have to be converted to PDF using another tool.
PDF.js is reputed as a secure, sandboxed environment (within the iframe) as well as a suitable replacement for old-fashioned web PDF readers that relied upon security-challenged plugin technology.
PDF.js has had a few high-profile exploits over the years. Mozilla patched each one very quickly, as they do for any threat to Firefox. For example:
- October 2013: Mozilla issued a “high” impact security advisory for a bypass of PDF.js checks using the iframe. This exploit could have been used to gather info about local files via no more than normal browsing actions.
- August 2015: Mozilla issued a “critical” advisory, the highest such advisory level, after an ad on a Russian news site was discovered to exploit a same-origin policy violation to try and steal local files.
- May 2018: Mozilla fixed two Firefox security vulnerabilities involving PDF.js. Each of the twoissues warranted a “high” impact advisory.
As with all open-source projects, especially popular ones, there’s always a chance of vulnerabilities that expose you or your users to attacks. At this point, however, PDF.js does not seem to possess any more or less vulnerabilities than other open-source projects.
linkText Select, Text Search, and Text Extract
PDF.js text select, text search, and copy/paste features rely on the underlying text parsing and extraction engine, which defines the text overlay and relies on the browser’s built-in text features. PDF.js text select has 90+ open issues on Github today -- more than any other issue category.
Normal PDF.js text selection can therefore prove unreliable. Some PDFs, for example, do not include correct text bounding boxes, and PDF.js is unable to correct for this. You may thus encounter documents where PDF.js selection jumps and misses sections or where spaces go missing when text is copy-pasted. Other times, double spaces are inserted.
These text issues can be fixed only by modifying the underlying text parsing and rendering engine, and they contribute to unreliable PDF.js text search as well. Indeed, PDF.js search may miss words and phrases, especially when these span multiple lines or where text includes extra white spaces between words.
Lastly, PDF.js text search supports basic search features, such as highlighting searched words and matching for case -- sufficient for most users. However, PDF.js lacks several advanced search features. For example, PDF.js does not yet support searching for multiple terms/phrases at the same time, and adding these features yourself may prove challenging.
Therefore, if accurate text search, text select, and/or text extraction are important to your use-case, or if you wish to implement advanced search, then PDF.js may not be the best.
PDF.js may be unsuited for the purpose of accurate, high quality printing. There are currently 35 open issues on Github related to printing. Problems commonly arise from the core PDF rendering engine-- as noted by an important project contributor:
Since the engine has to render canvases at a smaller size for viewing and printing, the result may be blurry output that can make it difficult to read hard-copy text. Moreover, our customers have reported that the experimental SVG backend has several rendering issues that may cause incorrect printing:
~Developer, e-Learning Platform
Additionally, color fidelity cannot be assured in printed material with either the SVG or canvas backends. PDF.js does not support color management functionality such as ink/color separations, CMYK colors, and ICC color profiles (an open issue for six years).
In summary, if your users share PDFs as part of a pre-print review process, or if they otherwise require clear and accurate printing, then you may wish to consider a commercial PDF SDK.
linkAdding More Features
For some customers, basic PDF rendering and viewing may be all they need, and PDF.js will prove excellent for this use case.
Others, however, may want to add further capabilities such as annotations, form filling, watermarking, merging documents, signatures, and redaction. Adding any of these features may prove difficult, as some of our customers testify:
~Senior Developer, DMS Software
~Developer, Legal Software
We surveyed 57 unique organizations who came to us recently seeking a commercial PDF SDK after trying PDF.js and discovering it would not meet their needs.
Notably, 42 or 73.7% of respondents cited a need for more functionality as a reason for seeking a commercial solution. Of those 42 organizations, almost three-quarters (71.4%) tried to implement that functionality themselves first -- and found it too difficult or time-intensive. The other 29.6% are “unknown.” (They may have tried, or they may not have.)
Ultimately, PDF.js may not prove time-efficient when you want to add features such as annotations. In some cases, such as where you want to add editing, you way wish to consider an alternative.
linkMaintaining Custom Features
Another important consideration is that once custom PDF.js features are built, they will have to be supported and maintained.
With over 6,000 forks and almost 27,000 Github “stars,” PDF.js is still popular with the open-source community. Commits happen on average several times a week, and these changes are not necessarily performed with your project in mind:
Our customers have also told us of PDF.js patches that led to undesired rendering behavior or that removed certain features, breaking their customizations. Customers had to dedicate additional staff to monitoring and testing changes. This made it harder to implement changes later on and reduced their capacity to build additional features.
Overall, PDF.js does a really good job with support; some contributors are very active, and response times can be lightning-fast, with one- or two-day responses in many cases, particularly for simple issues.
That being said, issues related to features, reliability, performance, and accuracy see longer response times.
For example, the PDF.js forum currently has around 70 open feature requests, including often-requested features such as Interactive & fillable forms, access to OCG layers, pinch zoom for mobile, and digital signatures.
These open feature issues have an average age of five years, with 84% created before the end of 2016. And most lack a clear resolution timeline -- a source of some dev frustration.
We’ve also measured a consistent increase in the total number of unresolved PDF.js support issues:
Additionally, we found a gradual slow-down in the issue resolution rate, where we looked at the month each issue was created and measured how many of those issues from each month have since been closed.
Because PDF.js is licensed under Apache 2.0, there is also zero liability or warranty for any defects. Rendering errors, for example, are ultimately your responsibility. And since PDF.js is an open source project, the level of support you will receive cannot be compared fairly to that of a commercial solution.
linkProject Status and Trajectory
Based on the velocity of PDF.js feature updates, going forward, it is an open question what the future of PDF.js holds.
Several signs point to Mozilla having lost interest in PDF.js and moving on. Their contributions seem to have diminished over time, as both of PDF.js’s primary proponents at Mozilla (Andreas Gal and Chris Jones) have since left. Meanwhile, PDF.js’s primary host, Mozilla Labs, closed down in 2014.
If you are looking for a stable, long-term solution, PDF.js poses some uncertainty.
linkPerformance, Reliability, and Accuracy
PDF.js is proven to be excellent for viewing small and simple PDFs such as many sales reports, invoices, and contracts. However, its performance is often less than optimal with more massive and complicated PDFs, such as many construction and engineering drawings, vector maps, large textbooks, and other designs.
~Senior UX Consultant, Fortune 50 Software Company
We’ve documented many of these performance issues as well, especially on mobile. For instance, PDF.js may have difficulty with documents above 100 megabytes:
~Developer, Fortune 50 Company
The SVG backend may also lead to slow performance in some cases:
~Developer, eLearning Software
Customers have also complained about slow performance in general:
~Solution Architect, Life Sciences Software
~Technical Director, Document Management Software
We’ve also found that about 1-3% of geospatial, life sciences, and CAD-based PDFs will crash or freeze the browser with PDF.js. Some subsets of CAD-based PDFs, such as those we fetched from the open-source repository GrabCAD.com, crashed the browser or failed to open in PDF.js at a rate of 10% of documents.
Some of our customers have also complained about PDF.js reliability issues:
~CTO, Training & Compliance Software
~Co-founder, eDiscovery Software
Of course, you could optimize and shrink documents for PDF.js to manage both performance and reliability issues. This assumes, however, that you can control documents before display. If you are unable to control documents, then you may be unable to control the user experience.
For 99% of PDFs, particularly simple files such as PDF invoices and sales reports, PDF.js will render content accurately. However, within the subset of more demanding documents in enterprise and organizational workflows, you may encounter difficulties.
For example, PDF.js has a few rendering inconsistencies with these documents, reported by our customers:
~VP, Software Consulting Firm
~ Developer, eLearning Software
We captured many instances of these rendering issues four years ago. The PDF.js contributor community has since fixed several rendering issues, including a few we pointed out.
However, PDF.js still faces rendering problems, in part, because PDF.js still does not implement the full PDF spec, including support for specific PDF patterns, transparencies, and other advanced graphics. Issues also occur as PDF.js relies heavily on the local device and the browser for rendering, as well as on custom HTML extensions to patch missing features -- with uneven adoption across browsers other than Firefox. This leads to inconsistent behavior across platforms.
Some of our customers also report image quality problems, including blurriness at zoom factors of 100% or more, especially on intricate designs and maps.
~Developer, 3D Mapping Software
These image quality issues can make it very difficult to read small text and perform accurate measurements.
In summary, for viewing small and simple PDFs on modern browsers, PDF.js is excellent. Because PDF.js supports linearization, it will also open many large documents almost instantly (assuming these documents are already optimized for fast web view).
However, if you require consistently high performance and reliability with complex documents, and near flawless rendering overall; or if your users work within older browsers -- then you may want to consider a commercial PDF SDK.
linkWhy Organizations Switch from PDF.js
We surveyed 57 unique organizations who came to us after finding PDF.js could not meet their needs. Many of these organizations consisted of OEMs and enterprises, working within design agency settings and in industries such as construction and engineering, publishing, finance, education, legal, and life sciences.
linkConclusion: When to Use PDF.js
A PDF.js-based project will tend to go smoothly under the following circumstances:
- Feature requirements are basic
- PDFs are small and simple
- The solution is internal to your organization
- Users are willing to tolerate some rendering and performance issues
- You can optimize/shrink documents before viewing with PDF.js
In contrast, the following may make your project much more complicated or require you to consider a commercial solution:
- Feature requirements are more advanced and may include PDF editing
- Documents include the large or complex (e.g., CAD-based PDFs)
- Users require a high degree of rendering accuracy
- Need to support older browsers such as IE 10
- You cannot optimize documents before viewing with PDF.js
Additionally, we also wanted to give you an overview of supported PDF.js capabilities to help you decide whether PDF.js is the right match for your unique document and user requirements.
In what follows, checkmarked features and capabilities are available with PDF.js out of the box, whereas other features are not yet part of the main PDF.js project. Some of our customers have tried building several of these features themselves or by using other projects -- with varying levels of success.
linkSupported and Unsupported Features
|Render & view small/simple PDFs||✓|
|Open Word documents, images, and other file types||✖|
|Support (including SLAs and guaranteed response times)||✖|
|Warranty and liability (e.g., for rendering errors)||✖|
|Accurate, high-quality printing||✖|
|Firefox and Chrome||✓|
|Microsoft Edge and IE 11||partial*|
|Older browsers such as IE 10||✖|
|Older mobile devices (e.g., iOS 9)||✖|
|Basic text search, text select, and copy/paste||✓|
|Accessibility compliance (e.g., 508/ADA)||✖|
|Direct annotation (add, edit, remove)||✖|
|Real-time collab via user comments and replies||✖|
|Page manipulation (add, merge, remove)||✖|
|Document manipulation (merge, split, etc.)||✖|
|Render visual appearance||✓|
|Form field extraction||✖|
|Interactive elements (e.g., buttons)||✖|
linkUI and Mobile Features
|Multiple page views and layouts||✓|
|Zoom||✓ (max 1000%)|
linkAdvanced Graphics and Features
|Gradients and patterns||partial*|
|Accurate measurement on complex documents||✖|
|Toggleable visual layers (via OCGs)||✖|
*Supported to some degree, but may prove unreliable or inaccurate
linkThe Bottom Line
Building with PDF.js can certainly be cost-effective within the right project scope: primarily, when one wishes to enable viewing of small and simple PDFs.
We even built a wrapper around PDF.js for those who want to do a more involved build, such as adding an annotation overlay, basic form fill, and electronic signatures to a highly customizable UI.
(Learn more about our PDF.js wrapper PDF.js Express.)
If you decide PDF.js is the right tool for you, we also provide a few guides to help start your team on PDF.js-based projects that work pretty great:
- How to Build a PDF Viewer with Electron and PDF.js
- How to Build a PDF Viewer With React and PDF.js
- How to Build a PDF Viewer with Angular and PDF.js
- How to Build a PDF Viewer with AngularJS and PDF.js
We’d love to hear any feedback you may have about this article or our PDF SDK. Don’t hesitate to contact us directly.