ORLANDO, Fla. -- Over the past six years, I have reviewed every Apple iPhone that's been released. Since I'm not on Apple's media list for pre-release hardware previews, that usually means I brave the long lines every year, just like everyone else, to get an iPhone as soon as possible.
This is a good thing. I get to talk to iPhone buyers about why they're in line, and what they like (or don't like) about the latest iPhone or iPad -- and it gives me a chance to capture the annual buying frenzy that always accompanies an Apple launch.
Over the last few years, Apple made it easy to pre-order an iPhone before launch day -- even allowing for home delivery on the big day. At the same time, iPhones are available in more and more places, from wireless carriers' stores to Walmart, Target, Best Buy and even Radio Shack. If you wanted to brave a long line, the choice was yours.
This year, only the iPhone 5C was available for pre-order; the flagship iPhone 5S -- the one I wanted -- was not. Online orders for both models were set to begin at 3 a.m. today, with Apple stores opening at 8 a.m. local time to handle the foot traffic.
My goal early today was to try and avoid the Apple Store here at the Florida Mall in Orlando, where the lines can get really long. I was aiming to get the 64GB white-and-silver 5S.
So at 2 a.m., my friend Darren arrived and we ventured first to the local Walmart. An hour later, as online orders began, I spoke to a Walmart employee about whether they had gotten any iPhones. She implied that they did, but none of them was prepped for sale -- and the person who knew how to handle mobile purchases wouldn't be in until 8 a.m.
We stopped at another Walmart, hoping for better luck. Nope. In fact, we were the only ones there asking about them.
As the clock edged past 4 a.m. -- four hours until the Apple Store opened -- we cruised up and down Orange Blossom Trail to look for any itinerant Apple fans waiting for their iPhones. The local AT&T and Verizon stores each had at least a half dozen people clumped together outside in the mild Florida night. We passed Target and Radio Shack, but I couldn't tell if any lines had formed.
The local Best Buy had no lines, and over at the Florida Mall -- where the Apple Store is located -- only 50 or so people were outside. We doubled back down Orange Blossom Trail, scoping other local outlets for any iPhone-related lines. That was a mistake. By the time we got back to the mall, the line had more than doubled. There were 120 people in front of me and within about 30 minutes another 75 or 80 behind me.
Darren agreed to wait over at Best Buy. He was my fallback guy; he was only in line to get an iPhone in case I was shut out at the Apple Store.
At 5:30 a.m. -- still dark outside -- the line at the mall started moving indoors to a designated location. While there, we were offered snacks and water by Apple employees who tried to keep everyone's energies up. We settled in for another two hours, drinking water and eating snacks.
The people standing in line weren't limited to hardcore Apple fans. I saw a lot of diversity: boyfriends and girlfriends, grandmas and grandkids, even entire families -- some with toddlers -- standing and chatting in line, waiting to buy a phone.
An Apple worker did his best to keep us informed, telling us there would be a ticketing system based on current inventory. At 6:50 a.m., they told us the iPhone 5S was limited to two per person (the 5C was limited to 10). He also urged everyone to use the free Apple-provided Wi-Fi to back up their iPhones to iCloud for a more seamless transition to the new phone. Surprisingly, the Wi-Fi never buckled under the stress.
Around 7:30 or so, they started handing out tickets. By 7:40, the gold iPhone 5S was already sold out. Five minutes later, the white-and-silver models were gone. But we were told the store had plenty of the Space Gray models.
Suddenly, it was 8 a.m. and Apple Stores up and down the East Coast were opening their doors to lines just like the one here.
A half hour later, a chunk of us moved into the store and formed a line flanked by iPhone and iPod displays. This was my first chance to see the new iPhones. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the gold model on display was done in a very subtle shade. The white/silver iPhone 5S looked good, too. Most surprising, I found the iPhone 5C to look solid and well-made. The plastic shell isn't cheap feeling at all. I expect Apple to do well with this model; the build quality, iPhone 5-like performance and $99 entry-level price virtually guarantees that.
By 8:45 a.m., the Apple employees told us that unlocked iPhone 5S models for T-Mobile were sold out; there were plenty of 5C models, though.
By 8:48 a.m., I had a Space Gray iPhone 5S in hand and paid for. By then, the Best Buy nearby had about 20 people in line. Darren reported that they had only Space Gray iPhones for AT&T, and no 64GB units, making me glad I'd waited at the Apple Store.
By mid-morning, the word was out: Most stores had run through their allotments of iPhone 5S models, and online order deliveries were being pushed into October. Good news for Apple, bad news for hopeful buyers.
Note: I'll be reviewing this phone, with a first look at it on Monday and a deeper dive to follow.