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iPhone XS, XS Max launch, drawing smaller crowds but plenty of fans

Stores around the world open their doors to those seeking the new iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and Apple Watch Series 4.

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South Korean student Teddy Lee and YouTuber Mazen Kourouche walk out with two of the first iPhone XS handsets sold in the world in Sydney, Australia.

Claire Reilly/CNET

The crowds might be smaller than at last year's iPhone X launch, but if you thought 11 years of launches would lessen the die-hard Apple fandom, think again.

Apple's newest iPhone models -- the snappily named iPhone XS (that's "ten S") and iPhone XS Max -- are hitting stores around the world on Friday (officially knocking the iPhone X out of Apple's lineup in the process). The Apple Watch Series 4 also makes its in-store debut today.

Sydney, as usual, was one of the first cities to get a bite, with stores in cities around the world opening their doors as the morning creeps in.

More than a decade since the launch of the original iPhone, the phenomenon of the Apple fanboy line continues to exist, even if the numbers have waned over the years. With online preorders, in-store pickups and deals from carrier partners, there's less reason than ever to wait in line. The iPhone XS, meanwhile, offers only incremental upgrades to last year's iPhone X, with the iPhone XS Max getting a size increase and more battery.

Yet the fanboys keep showing up -- even if they've ordered everything in advance. 

"It's tradition," said Justin Harris, who has been waiting in lines for the past several years and wasn't even at the Union Square Apple Store in San Francisco. He showed up just to try the products -- which were already being shipped to him later today. 

The lines are a sign of the enduring loyalty of Apple, unusual in an industry where tech favorites rise and fall with shifting consumer whims. Many, however, are visiting from countries that aren't getting the phone right away, or just like the attention of being first. Like last year, Apple opted to split the release of its new iPhones, with the iPhone XR launching next month. The extra wrinkle is Apple releasing its two higher-end phones first, with the more intriguing "budget" version coming on Oct. 26. 

The iPhone XS and Max don't come cheap. The starting price for the 64GB iPhone XS is $999 (AU$1,629 in Australia and £999 in the UK), while the Max starts at $1,099 (AU$1,799 and £1,049). The lower-priced iPhone XR, meanwhile, starts at $749 (AU$1,229 and £749).

For that price, the smartphones get dual rear cameras, a front-facing camera with portrait mode, Apple's new A12 Bionic chip (which promises to launch apps 30 percent faster than 2017 iPhones), Faster Face ID unlocking and dual-SIM card support. Read our full iPhone XS here and iPhone XS Max review here.

Which of the two smartphones won out? It depends on the region, although many opted for the supersized iPhone XS Max. 

Sydney

Crowds queued outside the Apple Sydney store on George Street in the early hours on Friday.

The smaller iPhone XS was the pick of the day for shoppers, which included a raft of students, YouTubers and even a small phone cover company from London that spent £3,000 on flights (that's three new iPhones' worth) to get their hands on the new devices before everyone else in the UK. 

While last year's iPhone X launch drew crowds looking to buy the first-of-its kind device (goodbye home button, hello Face ID), this year's queue included plenty of people just out to buy a new phone.

Namrata Singh, 37, a pilot on holiday from India, said she came down in the morning to buy a new iPhone after dropping her last one. But while she said there's an Apple store in New Delhi, India doesn't do the big launch day crowds.

"I haven't seen people queue up for Apple in India at all," she said. "So I'm quite surprised to see these queues... it's fairly fascinating. We walked by last night and there were people setting up tents, so I really thought we'd be at the other end of the block by the time we got here this morning."

There were certainly fewer people waiting first thing on a Friday morning in Australia (there were 65 people in the walk-up line 30 minutes before the doors opened), but that may change when the lower-priced XR goes on sale next month.

First out the doors a few minutes after the store opened at 8 a.m. were Teddy Lee, a 20-year-old South Korean student studying in Sydney, and Mazen Kourouche, 21, a launch day regular (four years and counting) who buys Apple's new devices to film for his YouTube channel.

Lee, who's making the switch from Android, opted for the XS, saying he was keen for the better screen (compared to the XR) and the gold body.

"My first smartphone was iPhone 4," said Teddy Lee. "Currently I'm using Samsung but I'm going to switch to iPhone because iPhone is more [of a] fit for me."

Now playing: Watch this: iPhone XS and XS Max madness kicks off
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Kourouche bought an XS, XS Max and Apple Watch Series 4 to unbox for YouTube. While he also plans to buy an XR when it goes on sale, he was out on Friday for the gold iPhone XS, which he sees as "more on the premium end." He won't keep much of the gear though.

"I do flip a lot of my tech," he said. "Sometimes I do give them to family members. People sometimes buy them and I get to review them before I give [the phone] to them... and if they don't, I tend to buy it myself and then flip it because I've got to get my hands on it either way."

Singapore

There's a sizable crowd at the Apple Store in Singapore as the doors open to start sales of the iPhone XS and XS Max.

There's a sizable crowd at the Apple Store in Singapore. Queues started forming as early as 7 a.m. a day beforehand.

Aloysius Low/CNET

With the sunny island state being the nearest (and only) official Apple Store for many countries in Southeast Asia, it's no wonder there was a sizable line in front of the Orchard Road location, with many coming from places like Vietnam. Lines formed as early as 7 a.m. Thursday in Singapore for walk-ins, while those who ordered online could come by on launch day itself without having to camp outside.

Self-employed 25-year-old Phan Minh Tuan came to town with five of his friends on holiday from Vietnam to get a 256GB iPhone XS Max in gold. Phan, who also dropped by last year for the iPhone 8 Plus and X, said he found the weather a lot better this time around. He had been queuing since 5 p.m. Thursday, ahead of the Friday launch. Last year, he bought both phones and has since sold his iPhone X back home. While he is still using the iPhone 8 Plus, he plans to switch the XS Max.

"I couldn't order online because I am not a Singaporean, and also I can get a tax refund as a tourist if I do a walk-in," he added.

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Singaporean Daniel Lim was the first to get his hands on the new iPhones in Singapore.

Aloysius Low/CNET

First in Singapore to get his hands on the iPhone XS Max was Singaporean Daniel Lim, a 23-year-old student who got lucky enough to be first on the preorder system. He only waited an hour for the Apple Store to open before collecting his loot. He got not one, but two 512GB iPhone XS Maxes in gold. They're for his relatives working in Vietnam.

He added that he regretted buying the iPhone X before the announcement of the new phones, and said he would have just gotten the XS Max instead.

At one point on Thursday night, representatives from Huawei showed up to hand out free battery banks to people in line. The move was an effort to promote its own long-lasting P20 Pro.

There are few better captive audiences than a group of gadget enthusiasts waiting in line. 

Madrid

Several dozen people lined up in front of the iconic Puerto del Sol Apple Store in Madrid. While many in line had preordered the phone ahead of time, there were many who started waiting in line the night before. 

Despite the crowds, the number of people who waited for the iPhone X a year ago was higher. The iPhone X, which Apple warned would face inventory issues early, was the hotter ticket last year. 

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The crowds at the Apple Store in Madrid. 

Erika García

London

The iPhone fans at the Apple Store on London's Regent Street on Friday morning were uncharacteristically media-shy. In stark contrast to 2017, when the first spot was taken by a minor reality TV star, the first man in line this year was dressed in long dark coat with his hood drawn around his face. He was something of an enigma. I managed to discern that he'd been queuing since 1 p.m. on Thursday, but he declined to talk to anyone about the iPhone XS Max he later picked up inside.

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Mystery man was all smiles when he received his iPhone.

Katie Collins/CNET

Lining up to be among the first in the country to get their hands on new phones this year were many native Londoners. Most of them, including Simon Farrar, 45, were in it for the iPhone XS Max for its bigger screen size.

But there were exceptions. Kelvin Hall was in line to pick up his preordered iPhone XS. Having lined up two years ago, he told me it was more convenient for him to come and pick his phone up from the Apple Store rather than opt for home delivery as he worked just down the street. "And I like the party atmosphere," he added.

And the party began the moment the doors opened at 8 a.m. Apple employees whooped, clapped and high-fived customers as they trickled into the store.

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The queue outside the Apple Store on London's Regent Street on Friday.

Katie Collins/CNET

One of the first to pick up a phone was a 19-year-old London student who didn't wish to be named. He was there at 8.30 p.m. the previous night to get his iPhone XS Max in gold.

"I can't believe I did it," he said. "It's completely sad that people do it every year." He got no sleep, he said, adding that it was too cold and loud, and he's not planning to do it again. "I'm hoping to join the Apple Upgrade program instead," he said.

New York

Apple's Fifth Avenue store is supposed to be the company's flagship store, but it's a little off its game at the moment. The store has been under renovation, and temporarily gone is the iconic glass cube. The area is closed off, so the company relocated its retail operation to the adjacent space that used to house the famed FAO Schwarz toy store. 

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The temporary location of the Fifth Avenue Apple Store. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Prior to the store's opening, the line extended along the block -- far shorter than in years past. Still, some people, including iPhone launch regular Greg Packer, camped out here starting Thursday night. He purchased two iPhone XS Maxes for his friends. 

Mark Guliaviev, who preordered the phone for pickup, had the honor of being the first at the store to get his hands on two iPhone XS Max phones in gold. The 20-year-old student from Ukraine said he would keep one and give the other to his mother. 

He showed up at midnight. 

"It's my first time [coming here so early for the phone.] Last year, I came for the iPhone X about 30 minutes after the door opened," he said. "It was really crazy, the line was so long -- like three blocks or so."

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There were shorter lines for the iPhone XS and XS Max this year. A lot of people may be waiting for the iPhone XR. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The first person in the regular line was Abraham Papas, who said he had been waiting in line for 15 hours. The 24-year-old master's student, here for two weeks visiting from Turkey, decided to come to the store in person for his iPhone XS Max. 

Unlike many others, Papas isn't a regular at these Apple product releases. He didn't even get last year's model.

"I didn't buy the iPhone X because it was too small," he said.

Mexico City

Apple Vía Santa Fe is the first and only store in Mexico, which is why Antonio Hueto trekked roughly 200 miles from his hometown of Veracruz to be the first in line for a new iPhone. 

Hueto arrived at the high-end Santa Fe mall Thursday morning and camped out throughout the night. 

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Antonio Hueto, the first person in Mexico City to buy the new iPhone XS Max, stands in the Apple Store amid cheering employees.

Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

Unlike other early buyers, Hueto opted for the Space Gray version of the iPhone XS Max, rather than the new gold color. He said that while he likes the color, he doesn't like it enough on his new iPhone. 

San Francisco

Justin Harris and his partner Ross Hendrix got in the Union Square Apple Store line on Wednesday morning, but they weren't even there to buy anything. They said preordered their iPhone XS, XS Max and Watch 4 online and expect to receive them in the mail. Still, they still wanted to get a hands on experience with the new Apple products, and more importantly, "meet other creatives," Harris said.

Harris, 22, has been waiting in front of Apple stores for new products "for the last decade." His mom even let him skip school and camp out in 2013, the year that the iPhone 5S came out, for his birthday. On Friday, he was dressed in a top that made him look like Marvel's Iron Man, and Hendrix, 20, wore a black T-shirt with a Black Panther necklace.

Of the three new products, Harris and Hendrix are most excited about the Watch. Why? "I track everything in my life," Harris said. "My heart rate, runs, workouts." 

Two men stand in front of the Apple store in San Francisco dressed as Marvel Comics characters.

First in line at the Apple store at San Francisco's Union Square on Friday are Justin Harris, 22, and Ross Hendrix. They're dressed respectively as Iron Man and Black Panther. 

James Martin/CNET

Hendrix tracks his sleep to answer a question that piqued his curiosity. "Eight hours: that's generic. I want to know, how much sleep does one need as an individual?"

Tim Lipsky, 29, and Andrew Shaurko, 35, are excited about the Watch, too. Wearing black motorcycle jackets, they waited in line all night to buy one, in order to see how the EKG reader works in person. The two are creating a sports app that they hope will work in tandem with the sensor, with the aim of measuring recovery from workouts and predicting their response to exercise in the next week to month.

The long wait for the Watch was just the next step in a longer saga, Shaurko said. "We spent four years on research."

First published Sept. 20 at 5:07 p.m. PT.
Updated Sept. 21 at 3:04 a.m. PT:  Added information from London. Updated at 6:41 a.m. PT: Added information from New York. Updated at 7:33 a.m. PT: Added information from Madrid. Updated at 8:55 a.m. PT: Added information from Mexico City. Updated at 10 a.m. PT: Added information from San Francisco. 

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