As its feature set expanded, Windows became something of an omnibus. It now includes not one, but two built-in browsers, a defragmentation tool, and even Candy Crush. But like most do-it-all tools, just because Windows can do almost everything doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do anything. So it is with the default photo viewer.

The Need For Speed(y Image Processing and Display)

An image viewer might seem like a somewhat mundane portion of your operating system to upgrade, and of course most people don’t think to do so. But in situations where you’re handling large image files in exotic formats, it can be a necessity. Third-party tools like IrfanView may not be as aesthetically pleasing as Windows’ photo viewer, but they’re more powerful, more flexible, and faster than the operating system’s default.
I first started looking for a more powerful option while working as a graphic designer in a sign shop way back in the aughts. On a Pentium 4 machine that chugged to run Photoshop and Illustrator, I made custom advertising banners and cutouts, sometimes thirty feet wide and a gigabyte or two thanks to hours and hours of work. Rasterizing the files for the printer would sometimes take half an hour. So using the default Windows XP image viewer, which sometimes couldn’t even open the file formats I had to save in, didn’t work well.

During my time in the printshop, I used an underpowered PC to make massive banners for retailers and events. Even on medium-sized images with complex effects, trying to load them with the default Windows XP image viewer was painfully slow, sometimes only a few seconds faster than booting up the cumbersome Photoshop program from a cold start. It was clear I needed something with a little more under the hood.

You don’t need to be a graphic designer to get the benefit of a faster, more broadly-compatible image viewer. With DSLRs shooting thousands of images in RAW and even cell phone cameras eager to bust through new megapixel barriers, speed is of the essence, especially if you’re using it on a low-power laptop or tablet.

IrfanView Beats the Windows Default With a Stick

After a bit of searching for something better than the Windows default, I found IrfanView. The tiny, funny-sounding application is designed for two things: maximum file type support and ludicrous speed. (If you think the name sounds weird, it gets it from its Bosnian creator, Irfan Skiljan.) The program has been in continual development for over twenty years, and it’s free for personal use.
After installing it on that old office clunker, I was immediately able to load up huge images in a preview view almost instantly. What the program lacks in sartorial splendor it makes up in speed and flexibility, and I soon set it as the default image viewer for every format except full Photoshop and Illustrator files. The program allows for a few extra tools like permanent rotation, copying and pasting, and toolbar customization, and its already-extensive file support can be extended even further with plugins.
Digging deeper into the program reveals some thoughtful extras, like an Optical Character Recognition tool (it can “read” text on an image and export it to an editable text format), and even basic video and audio playback plus some editing tools. It won’t replace Photoshop anytime soon, but if you need some cropping or to block something out, it’ll do. Those who want a minimal interface or custom zooming steps or even a slideshow mode that stretches across multiple monitors will find what they’re looking for.
Even though I now only use my high-powered, home-built machine for graphic design, I’ve kept IrfanView installed up to Windows 10. Why use something slower with fewer features?

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