With developer preview versions of Windows Phone 8.1 finally starting to leak, it's time to start looking at individual new features and apps in this major new release. First up: A new Podcasts app. And get this, it's not made by Xbox.

You may recall that to date Windows Phone has provided a Music + Videos hub, a panoramic experience with integrated Xbox Music, podcasting, and FM radio experiences, plus (admittedly very weak) integration capabilities for third party apps. In Windows Phone 8.1, this hub is going away, and we will get separate Xbox Music and Video apps (currently available in beta form for Windows Phone 8 users) instead. We're also getting a standalone Podcasts app.

(No, I'm not sure what's happening with FM radio, sorry.)

There are a number of notable features of the Podcasts app, which looks like a significant improvement over the Music + Videos podcast functionality in today's Windows Phone. These include:

Bing, not Xbox. I had some hints this was coming, but the Podcasts apps comes from the Windows Phone group at Microsoft, not from Xbox, and utilizes Bing technologies for search. This makes sense in a number of ways, and as I'll write about soon, there are many, many more Bing-powered apps in 8.1 now, which is quite interesting.

Nice, simple UI. The app uses a simple, pivot-based interface with three primary views: Now Playing, Favorites, Collection and Get Podcasts.

Now Playing. As you'd expect, this view provides playback controls, including ... wait for it ... variable playback speed! (You can choose between 1x, 1.5x and 2x speeds.)

Favorites. This view holds the podcasts which you've marked as favorites. If you're familiar with Bing's other mobile apps, you know this is a common feature across all of them, though it's not clear why users would need both subscribed and favorite podcasts (though it could of course be useful for very dedicated podcast users). You can also pin podcasts to Start, as you can today.

Collection. This works like the main Podcasts view in today's Music + Videos view, with separate Audio and Video items.

Get Podcasts. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the app, in that it differs so much from how this works currently. Today, you find podcasts in the Windows Phone Store, but in this Podcasts app you'll be able to search by name—using the Bing search engine, based on the related searches items I see—or supply a URL, which is new, and means you'll be able to subscribe to virtually any podcast on-device. Nice!

Share. While Windows Phone 8.1 doesn't appear to add a Windows 8.1-like Share charm, the platform has always supported a thematically similar Share function, and the Podcasts app now supports it. So you can share a podcast with others via email, Messaging, OneNote, NFC Tap to Share or any other compatible targets.

There are bits that aren't quite working, of course—it's prerelease code, after all—and I don't have any information about whether this app will work outside the US, as many will want to know. But the existence of this app is a surprise, and a welcome one.