The new iPad Air officially went on sale Friday. And while lines at Apple stores appeared to be shorter than in previous years, it's unclear what that actually means in terms of first weekend sales.
That's because there are a number of factors that are different this year from a year ago when the new iPads went on sale.
Last year, Apple sold 3 million units of the iPad 4 and the iPad Mini, but only the Wi-Fi versions were available.
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This year, the new iPad Air went on sale Friday in both the Wi-Fi and cellular versions. But the iPad Mini won't be available until later in the month.
Since the Mini has become the bigger seller, and the new Mini with a Retina screen is expected to be popular, that could be a negative for first weekend sales.
On the other hand, the iPad Air is available in China this weekend, unlike previous years when customers in that country had to wait for the latest version.
For all those reasons, projecting sales this weekend has been tricky for analysts. Gene Munster, a Piper Jaffray analyst, said he expected Apple to sell between 2.5 million and 3 million iPad Airs this weekend.
Munster said while lines may have been shorter, that was to be expected given that the iPad Mini wasn't available.
"We believe lines were slightly better than our low expectations and note that investors need to remember that today is only the launch for the iPad Air (more popular Retina Mini coming later in November)," Munster wrote in a note to clients. "Given the declining popularity of the full-sized iPad (~40% of units in Sep-13), we believed that lines could be fairly minimal for the iPad Air."
Still, by 5 a.m. Friday morning, about two dozen people were in line outside the San Francisco Apple Store near Union Square. In Emeryville, across the San Francisco Bay, about 25 people were in line when the store opened at 8 a.m.
But another reason that stores may have been quieter is that people could go online starting at midnight and order the iPad Air for pick up in the store. At the Emeryville store, about 200 iPad Airs that had been pre-ordered were stacked up waiting for people to come pick them up.
Jeff Gutkin, an Oakland attorney, stopped by mid-morning to grab the 128GB iPad Air he had already bought online.
"I have an iPad 2 and this just seems like a pretty big upgrade from that," he said. "And I've been reading the reviews and they all have been pretty much raves."
Over at the Berkeley Apple Store, Artem Yudin, an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, rode his bike down between classes to pick up his new iPad Air that he'd already ordered.
Yudin said he's a big Apple fan, with the iPhone, an iPad 4 he bought just last year, and a new MacBook Pro he purchased two days ago. While he loves the Apple ecosystem, he said he wanted the iPad because after updating his iPad 4 with iOS 7 a few weeks ago, it seemed to slow to a crawl.
"iOS 7 was so painfully slow on it," he said. "It was just becoming to hard to use on the old iPad."
The good news for Yudin was that he got $311 for trading in his iPad 4 at the Apple Store, which he put toward the new iPad.
After arriving at the Beverly Center at 7:30 a.m., Ivan Stanchev, 22, found himself first in line at the Apple Store. By the time the doors opened half an hour later, there were only two dozen people waiting, most of them to pick up pre-orders.
"It was surprising to me," the economics student from Bulgaria said. "Yesterday I was here to buy the iPhone 5s and they told me to expect a huge line."
Although he isn't a die-hard Apple fan, Stanchev said he wanted to be among the first to buy the iPad Air - he got a 16GB white one - so that he could "brag about it to friends."
Sitting on an orange armchair outside the Apple Store, he carefully unwrapped his new purchase and admired it.
"It's actually super, super light," he said. "It's beautiful."
Inside the store, Apple employees nearly outnumbered shoppers by 10 a.m., with customers breezing in with no wait. Behind the main checkout area, more than 200 boxes of iPad Airs were stacked on a counter, with more in the back.
Shoppers who were looking at the store's demo units said they liked how they could hold the tablet in one hand.
Although Rick Montano, a filmmaker from West Hollywood, owns an iPad mini and an iPad 3, he pre-ordered the Air online after it was introduced last month.
"The 3 was too heavy and the mini didn't have retina display and I missed the larger screen," the 29-year-old said. "This seems like the perfect convergence of the two."
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