When you first look at it, KidZui seems a bit like a kiddified Flock, a Web browser with social networking rolled in. Children using Windows or Macs can find their favorite YouTube videos, rate content using tags, and share opinions, all from a colorful interface with big buttons and clear, clean labeling.

Billing itself as "the Internet for kids," it turns out that KidZui is anything but a standard kids' browser, and what makes it so unique is precisely why it's such a safe tool for children to use.

What you see when you log in to KidZui. (Credit: CNET Networks)

KidZui is a closed system of pre-approved content, and although it seems to function like a browser, there's no way to use it to access the Internet directly. Instead, all the content that's available from KidZui has been approved by a group of editors. These moonlighting parents, teachers, and retired teachers started from a database built by a spider that checked dmoz directories across the Internet--similar to how Yahoo searches the Web. From there, they looked at each video, image, and Web site that KidZui lets children see, and then added the safe ones to an age-delineated whitelist. Four-year-olds, for example, can not see content that 10-year-olds can.

When KidZui launched in March 2008, the list of approved content included around 500,000 sites that, according to KidZui's chairman and CEO Cliff Boro, took two years to build. Eight months on, that's now expanded to more than a million pieces of content, with 50 editors still contracted to review new material and purge links that have changed or are dead.

Being closed doesn't mean that that the KidZui experience is limited. More secure than a haphazardly-applied algorithm from a Web blocker, but less limiting in part because it includes kid-appropriate social networking, KidZui in many ways seems to offer a more comprehensive Internet experience to children.

The Zui, the KidZui avatar, features customizations that draw kids in. (Credit: CNET Networks)

The basic version is free, and includes a solid core of features for both children and their justifiably worried parents. Remember the old use of Whitehouse.com, and how easy it was to get there by mistyping whitehouse.gov?

Since KidZui is closed to actual browsing, accidentally or intentionally reaching improper content means that's no longer an issue. There are three main tools for kids to explore the Internet with. There's a search bar at the top, a left-nav sidebar organized by topics including science, movies and TV, games, sports, and animals, and a bottom scroll bar that shows your most frequently-viewed Web sites. KidZui's URI bar includes predictive text similar to Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, but only for the pre-approved content. Below the URI bar are tabs for your default Welcome page, Games, New, Most Popular, and Most Tagged.

Once you start looking at content, three new tabs replace the default five. The Photo and Video tabs work much like Google's Image and Video searches, where you type into the URI bar what you're looking for and the tab automatically narrows it down to the specific type of content that you want under that topic. The Web tab allows for more open, Web browser-style exploration of the whitelisted content.

The right-side nav is taken up by the social-networking features, but again there's little cause for concern by parents. Kids can not e-mail or instant message each other, and there is no personal information that gets revealed when your child "friends" another. They can only see each other's avatars, known as Zuis within the program, usernames, and recently viewed or recently tagged content. By emphasizing the sharing of likes and dislikes as they pertain to videos, photos, and Web sites, and eliminating the ability to communicate directly, KidZui is able to keep the kids who use it focused on positive experiences.

KidZui also hopes to keep kids from being distracted by other local content on the computer by always running in a maximized, full-screen window. It also requires two clicks on the Exit button on the bottom right to fully log out, and parents can require that they enter in their username and password to prevent kids from accessing the rest of the computer.

After the parent has registered KidZui, the child needs to create an online identity. Kids can customize their avatars clothing, skin, face, and hair to a limited degree in the free version, with more options available if you upgrade. The more kids explore via KidZui, the more choices get unlocked, including background options, additional emoticon tags, and Zui customizations. Parents get weekly updates on all the sites that their kids have been looking at.

MyZui pages let kids create their own channels and see where they've been. (Credit: CNET Networks)

Free KidZui is fully functional, but the paid version definitely offers more to both parents and kids. Among the additions, children get more tags for rating content, more avatar clothing, and more backgrounds, while parents get the ability to block individual sites, and can view an unlimited history of the child's browsing. Parents who upgrade can also add Web sites, such as a personal family site, that they approve of on their own through the parental control panel. Upgrading also gains access to a Homework Helper feature, too, divided by subject and academic level from pre-school through eighth grade.

There's no such thing as perfect software, and KidZui is no exception to the rule. I noticed that when you're using the program in Windows, you can use the ALT+Tab hot key combo to access other concurrently running programs. On Vista, this can be used to gain access to the desktop. Walt Mossberg found a somewhat circuitous way to turn up a story on the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal when he looked at the program when it launched.

Even with these holes, KidZui looks as effective as anything I've seen at balancing the dual concerns at play when trying to educate kids with and about the Internet. It's important and difficult to give them the freedom to explore and learn how to use the Web while creating an environment that parents can feel they have control and influence over. KidZui beautifully manages to navigate those concerns and their implications, and is a must for any parent with children under the age of 13 to check out.