NEW YORK — Let the wild rumpus start.
The customary storefront crowds are expected to gather as Apple's latest iPad goes on sale today. Long lines are likely even though customers could have ordered the new tablet computer ahead of time for first-day home delivery.
The third version of Apple's iPad will be available in the United States and nine other countries starting at 8 a.m. local time. The new model comes with a faster processor and a much sharper screen. It also boasts an improved camera, similar to that of the latest iPhone.
For many customers, visiting a store in person — instead of having one shipped — offers consumers a chance to mingle with die-hard Apple fans.
Two years after the debut of the first iPad, the device's launch has become the second-biggest "gadget event" of the year, after the annual iPhone release. A year ago, thousands lined up outside the flagship Apple store on New York's Fifth Avenue. The device sold out on launch day, even though it didn't go on sale until 5 p.m.
Apple does its part to encourage a party atmosphere. In past years, the company's retail employees have provided bottled water, coffee, bagels and even cupcakes to people in line. They've cheered and clapped as customers entered and left. Some customers have dressed as iPhones and iPads.
Although Apple's product releases have become a cultural phenomenon, the cultlike crowds that line up outside of its stores have made the company vulnerable to gentle ribbing from its competitors.
Television ads for Samsung's Galaxy line of phones routinely poke fun at people who are camped out in line for what appears to be an Apple product release.
The spots, in heavy rotation since December, portray Apple fans as clueless drones who think they're too cool to buy gadgets made by companies other than Apple. In one of the commercials, a bearded hipster says he could never buy a Samsung phone because he's "creative." A bystander observes: "Dude, you're a barista."
For some customers, standing in line will offer the only chance to get a new iPad today. Apple quickly ran out of supplies it set aside for advance orders. The company was telling customers Thursday to expect a two- to three-week wait for orders placed through its online stores.
In the U.S., the new iPad starts at $499, the same as the previous model, the iPad 2, when it debuted a year ago. The iPad 2 remains in stock, for $100 less.
Despite competition from cheaper tablet computers such as Amazon.com's Kindle Fire, the iPad remains the most popular tablet computer. Apple has sold more than 55 million iPads since its debut in 2010, including some 40 million last year. Researchers estimate that the iPad has more than 60 percent of the market for tablets.
Apple's retail stores are likely to draw the biggest crowds because they usually have the largest launch-day supplies, but the tablet will also be sold at Best Buy, RadioShack, Sam's Club, Target and Walmart.