View a file in Windows without its application

No app, no problem! 5 ways to view a file in Windows without its application

View a file in Windows without its application

Screenshot of Lance Whitney/ZDNET

You need to view a document or other file in Windows. But you don’t have the right application to open the file, or you just want to have a quick look without wasting time launching the full app.

Special programs called file viewers can view the contents of many types of files without the need for the associated application. File Explorer in Windows offers a preview pane that will display certain file types. Such file viewers as QuickLook, WinQuickLook and Cool File Viewer can view documents, PDFs and images, and even play audio and video files. And Microsoft PowerToys features a tool called Peek that will let you view certain files.

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Which viewer is best for your purposes? Below, I’ll go over my five favorite options.

File Explorer preview pane

File Explorer preview pane

Screenshot of Lance Whitney/ZDNET

In Windows 10 or 11, open File Explorer. In Windows 10, click the View menu, then click the entry for the Preview pane. In Windows 11, click the View menu, switch to Show, then select the entry for the Preview pane. Click on a file in the Explorer window and it should appear in the Preview pane. File Explorer Preview supports a variety of file types, including Microsoft Office files (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint), PDFs, and images (JPG, PNG, TIF, etc.). It will also allow you to play audio (WAV, MP3, M4A) and video (MP4) files.

Quick look

Quick look

Screenshot of Lance Whitney/ZDNET

Free on the Microsoft Store, Quick look can display a variety of different files, including Microsoft Office files, PDFs, ZIP files, images, audio and video files.

The app is simple to use. After installation, just select the file you want to view and press the space bar. The file then appears in the QuickLook window. You can resize the window and pin it so it stays visible. You can open the file with the associated application or a different app and share the file with someone else. And you can add QuickLook to your startup routine, so it’s available at the start.

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The developer also offers a complete set of plug-ins that you can install to support additional files, such as epub ebooks, PostScript files, Android APK packages, and torrent files.

WinQuickLook

WinQuickLook

Screenshot of Lance Whitney/ZDNET

Another file viewer accessible from the Microsoft Store, WinQuickLook it works very similar to QuickLook, although it will cost you $2.49. The app supports Office files, PDFs, ZIP files, images, audio and video files. Just select the file you want to view in File Explorer and press the space bar. WinQuickLook displays the file in a resizable window. If necessary, you can always open the file with the associated application or another app.

Fantastic file viewer

Fantastic file viewer

Screenshot of Lance Whitney/ZDNET

Available for free on the Microsoft Store, Fantastic file viewer works a little differently than QuickLook and WinQuickLook. Instead of hitting the spacebar to view a file, drag it into the Cool File Viewer window or select it from a menu. The app supports more than 450 file types, all of which are listed on the Microsoft Store page. But a paid subscription is required to view most of these files. Forking out $4.99 a year lets you view PDFs, webp files, and more. Coughing out $19.99 a year will help you view Microsoft Office files and more types of images, audio and video files.

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To use Cool File Viewer, open the app and drag and drop the file you want to view. Alternatively, click the Choose button and select the file in File Explorer. From the resizable viewer window, you can access menus and execute certain commands depending on the file type.

Microsoft PowerToys sneak peek

Microsoft PowerToys sneak peek

Screenshot of Lance Whitney/ZDNET

Finally, Microsoft offers a file viewer through its free PowerToys utility. Known as Peek, this tool can view a number of file types, including images, web pages, Markdown files, text files, and developer files. To get started, download and install PowerToys if you don’t already have it. Open the program and select the entry for Peek. Here you can make sure Peek is turned on and see or change the trigger shortcut (Ctrl spacebar by default). To view a file in File Explorer, select it and press Ctrl and the spacebar. You can then lock the viewer window and open the file in the associated application.

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Of all the file viewers, QuickLook is my favorite and the one I use by default since it’s free and supports a variety of file types. WinQuickLook is similar to QuickLook in features and file type support, but it’s not free. Cool File Viewer is the most capable of the bunch with support for nearly 500 file types, though it’ll cost you a $20 annual subscription. Depending on your needs, any of these viewers can come in handy when you just want to take a quick look at a file without going through its application.


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