When I got my Microsoft Surface two months ago, my 11-year-old asked if he could try it. "Sure," I said, and I was able to hand it over without worry that he'd be getting into my work e-mail or accidentally tweeting on my behalf. The Surface has what the iPad lacks: multiuser support.
It's not just the Surface, either. Any Windows tablet allows different users to have their own accounts. The latest version of Android, such as on the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10, also offers this. Even Amazon's Kindle Fire HD has a form of multiuser support.
It was already long overdue for the iPad to have multiuser support, and now it's feeling even worse. Apple has some serious catching up to do. Here's a look at how it works with other platforms.
Setting up multiuser support for Microsoft Surface & Windows RT
With Microsoft Surface RT (and this should be true of any Windows RT device, as well as Windows 8), to enable multiuser support, you need to simply add more users. You do this by going into Settings, then selecting "Change PC settings" at the bottom of the Settings window that opens up. From there, you can select the "Users" option from the PC Settings area, which leads to the "Add a user" option:
By default, Microsoft will try to have you create a new user linked to an online Microsoft Account. That might be overkill if you just want to let someone use your tablet to do things like Web browsing. But there is an option called "Sign in without a Microsoft account" to make what's called a "local" account that can be used:
Once you've created the account, it can be accessed by your guest in several ways. If you're logged in, click on your name to open a window where you can select the guest account:
Then your guest will be asked to sign in. This is where the downside of creating a local account will become painfully apparent. Say you want to let one of your kids play a game. There are no games natively installed on Surface. They all have to be downloaded from the Microsoft Store, which means you need a full-fledged account.
So, a local account is great if you want someone mainly to do Web browsing. Or use Paint. Or make use of the Microsoft Office apps like Word or Excel. But for the most part, if different people are going to make a lot of use of the tablet, they'll need to sign in with full-fledged Microsoft Accounts.
Restricting children in Windows
By the way, Microsoft has a Family Safety option you can enable when you create an account, so you can get reports on a child's activity, restrict apps, and do other things. I may explore these more in the future, but at a quick glance, they seem nice -- especially the ability to limit apps that can be downloaded based on ratings. Then again, I found Jetpack Joyride restricted for my son because it supposedly lacked a rating, even thought the Windows Store listed one for it.
If you forget to enable Family Safety, it can be done after the fact, but not through the User page I mentioned above. Instead, search for Control Panel, then go into User Accounts, where you can make the change and better configure settings:
It's dumb that you have to do this work-around, rather than having the full options for control in the Users area, where they belong, but that's part of the strange world of Windows 8 and Windows RT, where the "modern" tile-based interface often lacks full controls over the operating system.
No sharing of apps
The real disappointment is that there's no way that a download done from one account can be used by another. For example, I downloaded Star Wars Angry Birds for $5 while logged into my account on my Microsoft Surface. My kids can't access that game on the same tablet, if they're logged in to their own accounts. If they want it, they'll have to buy it separately. Otherwise, they have to use my account.
This is something we're used to in the smartphone world, where people have to buy their own apps. It makes sense there, because smartphones don't often get shared between adults. With children, they're temporarily borrowed for short periods of time.
But tablets are closer to PCs, where multiple people might use them. PCs long provided ways for one software installation to be used by multiple users. For example, in Windows 7, I could install a program logged in as an administrator and make that program available to all users. That's something that seems lost with Windows 8 and Windows RT and which isn't provided for with either Windows tablets or Android ones, as I'll get into next.
Note: There is a workaround for sharing apps for Windows users -- see my postscript below.
Setting up multiuser support with Android 4.2
If you have a Nexus 7 or Nexus 10, you've got Android 4.2 and the first native multiuser support provided by the Android operating system.
To enable other users, head into Settings, where you'll find a Users area, then choose "Add User" at the top of the screen.:
Next, you'll be taken to the tablet's log-in window, where a new icon for the account to be created will appear. Drag the lock icon onto the account icon, and the setup process will begin.
Similar to Microsoft Surface, you can set up a local account rather than one that's tied to an online Google Account. But if you do that, the user won't have access to much beyond the Web browser. If they want to play games or use apps not already native to the device, they'll need a full-fledged Google Account sign-in.
Issues with child-restrictions, app permissions
Unlike with Microsoft, there's no Family Safety-style option that allows you to restrict what a child user can download. Again, this is an aspect I'll explore more in a future column. But while apps in Google Play do have maturity ratings, Google Accounts (available to anyone aged 13 years or order) don't appear to have download restrictions that can be linked to this. Certainly it's not something Google covers on its Family Safety page.
Similar to Microsoft, the apps that one person has aren't usable by another. If you buy a game for yourself, your kids can't use it. They'll have to buy it separately with their own accounts.
Oddly, however, any user can apparently accept updated app permissions on behalf of other users. If some app decides it wants to have more access to your location or address book, another user can accept that? This just seems wrong.
Finally, after you've created the accounts, swapping is fairly simple. When you power on the device (from sleep or being completely off), you'll see icons for all those you've made at the bottom of the home screen:
Tap the account you want. If you've set up security, you'll then be prompted to enable that.
You can also switch without coming from a power-off state by dragging down from the top to reveal the control window. Tap on the icon for the account currently being used. That will bring up the home screen, where you can switch users.
Kindle FreeTime: Child accounts for Kindle Fire HD
Those with Kindle Fire HD tablets can make use of Kindle FreeTime for multiuser support. I wrote about this earlier, before it launched. Now it's actually live.
You'll want to make sure your Kindle has the latest operating system (pull down for the control bar, select More, then Device, then About, then System Version). If you're up-to-date, do a search in the Amazon Appstore for "Kindle FreeTime." When that app is downloaded, you can start the install process.
It'll ask for your Parental Controls password (you'll need to set one up, if you haven't already -- it's easy to do). After that, you'll enter a name and birthday and pick a picture for your child:
Next, you can set controls on how long your child can use your tablet or the specific content that's accessible to them.
This is where the Kindle Fire HD leaves Microsoft and Android, as well as Apple, in the dust for families. If you've purchased a game, book, or video, the specific titles you choose are accessible to other users of the tablet:
Once you've established the permissions, you put the tablet into child mode by tapping the child's profile using the Kindle FreeTime app:
That puts the Kindle into FreeTime mode, with its distinctive blue background, where the device reveals only the apps the child can use:
To exit FreeTime, pull down from the top of the screen to reveal the menu bar, select the "Exit FreeTime" option, enter your parental password, and you're done.
Sadly, if you have one of the original Kindle Fires -- the non-HD versions that are still being sold -- Kindle FreeTime isn't an option.
If you like FreeTime, also be sure to see our review of Kindle FreeTime Unlimited. It's like a version of Amazon Prime for kids, providing them access to a wide-range of kid-friendly content for $2.99 per child or $6.99 per family, per month, for Prime members.
Multiuser and child-support conclusions
Overall, if you're a parent looking for a tablet that you can share with young children, I think the Kindle Fire HD is the standout among the choices I've covered. It allows you to hand over your tablet with your own content safely excluded, plus you're not having to buy content separately for each child.
By the way, Windows Phone 8 has a Kid's Corner feature similar to Kindle FreeTime. If you're a parent looking for a phone with that type of functionality, Windows Phone 8 is a standout. It's a pity Windows RT doesn't offer the same, but it's an entirely different operating system than Windows Phone 8.
For those with older children or who are swapping devices between adults, the multiuser support from either Android or Microsoft is more appealing. Yes, you'll be buying content separately. But, each user will have easy access to customize the devices as fully as they'd like.
As for the iPad, as my previous post about tablets and multiuser support covered, there is a wide range of parental restrictions you can enable. But, I feel these are largely designed to help customize an iPad that will be exclusively used by a child. They're complicated overkill if you want to lend your iPad to a child temporarily. They're certainly not designed so that adults can easily share the same tablet with different accounts.
I'm sure that will change, and it will be welcome when it does. I also hope that overall, we'll see the greater ability for any account on a tablet to access any video, book, or apps that have been installed to that tablet, if permission has been granted.
Postscript: There is a way with Windows RT and Windows 8 to share apps that are downloaded from the Windows Store across multiple accounts. Paul Thurrott has a great write-up about this: Windows 8 Tip: Share Apps Between Multiple Accounts. However, I find the steps complicated, especially in comparison to anyone who knows how programs could be more easily shared in Windows 7. Moreover, while this might work for Windows Store apps, it won't work for apps installed through the desktop on Windows 8, not at least in my own tests.
That's less an issue for Windows RT users, such as those with the Surface tablet, because they can't install programs via the desktop anyway. But I still don't find this method as ideal as the way Amazon handles things.
By the way, I've done a similar thing with iOS devices in the past, where you can install an app using one user's account, then switch over to another user. It's worked for me in the past, but it's also similarly not ideal, especially if the app needs to be updated.
I haven't tried the same technique with Android, but I wouldn't be surprised if it works -- and also has the same limitations.