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What to do when Chrome stops letting you download PDFs

Chrome suddenly got weird. We found a bunch of settings, made things worse, and then made them better. Ain't technology grand?
david-gewirtz
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

This article falls into the "Chrome does odd things when downloading files" category. Every so often, I like to write articles that simply document weird problems and their solutions/workarounds. I figure that if I've encountered the issue and spent time trying to figure it out, some of you will, too. So this is for the folks who spent the last 30 or 40 minutes trying to Google an answer for why Chrome is doing odd things with their downloads and hoping for an answer.

I have an answer -- sort of.

Sitrep (situation report)

My wife does our little firm's bookkeeping. This means that every week or so, she has to download a whole bunch of bank, credit card, and vendor statements. She files those on our Bookkeeping Share on the Synology NAS, so we have them for taxes, reporting, or any other fiducially responsible need that crops up. She has been doing this for as long as there have been online statements.

There is a little variation in the process, depending on how each site codes its download links. But it's always some variation of clicking on a link or right-clicking and selecting Save As. The PDF file downloads into whatever folder she's doing her organizational magic with.

But earlier this week, that changed. Instead of downloading the file, it opened in Preview (she's using a Mac). And instead of being able to Save As into the appropriate folder, Preview would only allow the Save function to save to the Downloads folder, and it wouldn't allow her to name the file. It basically picked an index code and used that as the file name. So for every file, she had to go into the Downloads folder, rename the PDF, and move it to where she wanted it stored.

Alternatively, she could use the Print function in Chrome and choose to save it as a PDF, but then she had to navigate to the destination folder each time. This added numerous clicks to her workflow because each file now required her to find the destination folder she wanted.

The semi-hidden PDF Documents setting in Chrome

And so, I looked into the problem. At first, I thought I had found the answer. There were a number of articles pointing me to a PDF Documents setting right in Chrome. To get to this setting, you can't just type "PDF" in the Chrome Settings search bar because that would be too easy.

settings-site-settings-2022-04-06-21-05-15.jpg

Instead, you have to go to Settings, then click Security and Privacy, then click Site Settings, then click Additional Content Settings. At that point, you'll see the PDF Documents option. Click it, and you have this screen:

settings-pdf-documents-2022-04-06-21-05-42.jpg

Now, work with me here. Doesn't that look like it would solve the exact problem I was describing? Instead of opening the PDFs, just clicking that obvious little Download PDFs radio button should allow you to ... wait for it... download PDFs? Right? Yeah, not so much.

Apparently, that button turns on and off Chrome's internal PDF viewer. Like, totally off. If you click Download PDFs, the viewer built into Chrome ceases to function -- completely. You can test it by setting the button to Open PDFs in Chrome, then going to File->Open File and opening a PDF.

If Open PDFs in Chrome is selected, your PDF will open. Now, flip that radio button to Download PDFs and do the same thing. Go to File->Open File and open the same PDF. This time, you'll get nada, zero, zilch, nothing. That's because you've turned off the PDF Viewer. You've essentially disabled the plugin or module that controls PDF viewing inside Chrome.

Tell me that's an intuitively obvious side effect of choosing Download PDFs. Go ahead. Tell me.

Making it worse

Okay, I'm nothing if not creative. If changing the Download PDFs setting didn't fix my wife's problem with downloading PDFs, perhaps it was the default application. Perhaps if I changed the default application for PDFs from Preview to Chrome, the PDFs would open properly in Chrome.

So I selected a random PDF file on her desktop, did a Get Info and changed Open With from Preview to Google Chrome. I then clicked the Change All button to make this a default behavior for all PDF files.

inventables-color-coded-bit-chart-pdf-info-2022-04-06-21-40-38.jpg

This helped...not at all. It made it worse. Now, instead of the download or Save As opening the file in Preview, it opened it in the Chrome PDF viewer. And then it opened it in the Chrome PDF viewer again so that there were two copies of the PDF open in separate Chrome tabs.

Why? I don't know. Just because. Hey, if you know why, go ahead and tell us in the comments below.

Needless to say, my sweetheart was disheartened. So back to the internet I went. And lo and behold, I found a clue.

Making it better

I dug through the settings. I did much Googling. I tried all sorts of stuff. And then I stumbled on a post in the Google Support forum about files opening in IE. Yes, the solution for my PDF downloads problem was hidden in a Chrome support forum post about Internet Explorer.

The Google-fu is strong in this one.

The post was entitled "Downloads from chrome opening in internet explorer." The original poster described a problem that really didn't look anything like the one my wife was experiencing, except Chrome was doing Odd Things.

A few posts down, a user by the name of Moriah Krause posted the answer. Moriah also included the following screenshot. Look at where the green arrow is pointing.

message-18146692-12309539337346608180.jpg

You see where it says, "Open certain file types automatically after downloading"? I had never seen that option before. In fact, I looked on all my computers, and it's not there. You get to it by clicking Settings->Advanced->Downloads. Just for completionist's sake, I did a Google Image search, and posted screenshots of the Advanced->Downloads options that don't show "Open certain file types automatically after downloading". They only show two options: Location and Ask where to save each file.

settings-2022-04-06-21-13-18.jpg

So you and I can be forgiven for not knowing to check for that option because it's like Brigadoon. It almost never exists. But on my wife's computer, there it was. Plain as day. She was having a problem with Chrome opening PDF (a file type) automatically after downloading. The option doesn't specify which file types are "certain file types" because that would ruin the surprise.

But there I was. The Human Google. Husband Man. Wizard of All Geekdom. The Tech Guy. So I put on my metaphorical wizard's hat, waved my magic wand (fine, I pushed my mouse), and clicked Clear.

And that was that. It worked.

Do you know why?

Do I know why my wife's computer got into that weird state? No. Do I know how to return it to that state or when "Open certain file types automatically after downloading" is displayed in Chrome? No. But my wife's happy, and that's all that matters.

That said if you do know what caused this behavior, what file types are "certain file types", or can shed any more light on this situation and its solutions, feel free to share with us in the comments below. And happy downloading!


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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