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iPhone 8, 8 Plus draw fewer Apple fans as many hold out for X

A decade on, fans still queue up for Apple's latest phones. But lines aren't as long as they've been in the past because many are waiting for iPhone X.

iphone-8-launch-syd-3

Mazen Kourouche (right) and a friend hoist their iPhones in Sydney.

Ian Knighton / CNET

The launch of a new iPhone, an annual rite in the tech calendar, comes twice this year.

The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, Cupertino's latest iteration of the device that changed the way we communicate, went on sale at Apple stores on Friday. As always, fans around the world used the launch to celebrate New iPhone Day, an unofficial but nonetheless festive holiday. (See CNET's review of the iPhone 8 here.)

As in previous years, the faithful began assembling early at stores around the world. 

But the lines and crowds were a lot thinner because of an extra wrinkle this year. While the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus go on sale today, the iPhone X, the top-off-the-line and top-of-the-price-range model, hits stores in early November. This marks the first time Apple has split the launch of its new flagship phones. 

Of course, online preorders have also changed the game, making the line a demonstration of fandom rather than the quickest route to getting a device from box to hand. 

"I am thrilled," Cook told CNBC on Friday while visiting an Apple Store in Palo Alto. He  added that both new iPhones and the new Apple Watch Series 3 with cellular connections were sold out in some places. "I couldn't be happier."

Indeed, some people appeared to be making the pilgrimage out of habit and history rather than exhilaration over the prospect of a new iPhone.

And we get to do this all over again in a month and a half. 

Sydney

The Apple faithful showed up well before the doors at Apple's flagship store opened at 8 a.m. local time.  A line of roughly 50 people quickly formed, but it didn't snake around as many blocks as it has in the past.

Those who did queue in Sydney were excited but didn't exhibit the same exuberance that's come to be associated with Apple's product launches. A trio of YouTubers led the line, all hoping to attract viewers with unboxing and first-impression videos.

Mazen Kourouche, who waited 10 days in front of the store to ensure he would be the honorary "first buyer," led the group and recorded the opening of both a white and a black 8 Plus for his subscribers. Kourouche says he's giving the phones to family members and will upgrade to the X when it comes out.

"I love the glass finish on the 8," Kourouche, a 20-year-old Sydney student, said while comparing the new device to the earlier 4 model that had a similar exterior. "I appreciate this new glass finish" more than the finish on the recent line, he said. 

The 8 and 8 Plus don't break the same design ground as the upcoming X, which does away with the iPhone's readily identifiable home button. But they bring new features, including wireless charging, and upgrades to the camera and screen. They also carry a more modest price tag than the X, which starts at a budget-busting $999 (AU$1,579)

The X has a 5.8-inch screen, the biggest Apple has ever made for an iPhone. The bezels are razor thin, and the home button's been done away with. It also has fancy stabilized front and rear cameras. 

Now Playing: Watch this: Apple opens its doors in Australia for first iPhone 8...
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Singapore

Amin Ahmed Dholiya was the first in a line of roughly 100 fans here at the city-state's Apple Store, which opened earlier this year. The 43-year-old businessman, who started the queue at 7 p.m. Thursday, flew in from India especially to buy an iPhone 8 Plus in gold as a wedding gift for his daughter. (The new iPhones arrive in India on Sept. 29.)

But Varis Sinthopruangchai, 20, an exchange student from Thailand, scored Singapore's first iPhone 8. Instead of queuing, Sinthopruangchai preordered both the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus in black for his parents. He plans to return when the iPhone X is available.

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Varis Sinthopruangchai, 20, an exchange student from Thailand, taking a selfie with his iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus at the Apple Store in Singapore. 

Aloysius Low/CNET

At Singtel's iPhone 8 launch event, Eng Guan Theng bought space gray and gold 8 Pluses, one for him and the other for his mother. The 30-year-old civil servant was switching back to Apple's mobile phone after using a Samsung Note 5 for several years.

"It's the second time I'm getting the iPhone," Eng said. "I've been using Samsung Note 5 and I feel that it gets laggy after a while, so I decided to go back to iPhone." 

The celebration of the iPhone, which first went on sale in 2007, has changed over the last decade. Hundreds of people jammed Stockton Street in San Francisco to get their hands on the revolutionary device at the inaugural launch. Now lines to get the latest Apple handset are more modest affairs.

China

It's vastly different in China, where internet users and local publications have observed lines so short that staff at Apple stores removed crowd control barriers. The same has been observed in Hong Kong, according to the South China Morning Post.

The result has been low resale prices and low profits for people looking to nab the phone early and immediately turn it around. 

Apple has struggled in the Chinese market, where companies like Huawei, Oppo and Xiaomi have made strides making Android phones that are cheaper but still offer high-end features like sharper cameras and better battery life. 

As in other cities, the wait for the iPhone X likely also is playing a role in the muted enthusiasm for the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. 

London

On a bright but chilly Friday morning in London, 24-year-old Salam bin Mohammed was surprised to find himself at the front of the line. Outside the city's main Apple Store on Regent Street near Oxford Circus at 7:30 a.m., he was one of about 20 people waiting to get a new iPhone. He started queuing at 10 p.m. Thursday.

Bin Mohammed, who works in retail management, was waiting to buy two iPhone 8 Plus phones, one for himself and one to send to his parents in India. He was upgrading from an iPhone 6s, and said he wouldn't be getting an iPhone X, because "it's too delicate."

In previous years queuers in London were directed to the Covent Garden store, which provides sheltered porticos under which people can take refuge from the changeable British elements. Not so outside the recently reopened Regent Street store, which provides only an exposed sliver of pavement for waiting and is just steps away from the crush of relentlessly busy Oxford Circus.

Unlike past iPhone launches, there were no camping chairs or sleeping bags in sight, although one person did arrive with a giant suitcase. Elena Kuzmenko, 35, from Russia, planned a one-day stopover in London on the way back from her holiday in Lanzarote specifically to pick up three iPhone 8 devices to take home with her. She landed in the city at 4 a.m. and is due to fly to Moscow, phones in hand, this evening.

New York

The faithful still showed up in the Big Apple, with about 40 people in line at the store in the trendy Soho neighborhood. The line wrapped around the corner, which is admittedly an easy feat because the store is on the corner of Prince and Greene streets.  

The first in line was Matt Berger, who had been waiting since 9:30 p.m. Thursday. Nobody else showed up for another five and a half hours. Many fans are doing the calculus on which iPhone they should buy (or can afford). Not so with Berger. 

"I broke my phone so I needed something new, since I'm a photographer," Berger said. "I'm going to get the iPhone X also. I just needed something right now."

He said was getting sick of the small backup on the iPhone SE.

Some just can't break the habit of getting in line. Jeff Weisbein, the second person to arrive, wasn't even waiting to get an iPhone. He wanted the new Apple Watch Series 3.  

Likewise, Robert Fitzpatrick, who has been waiting in line for iPhones since the original, said he was there to buy an Apple Watch and Apple TV 4K. He plans to be in Paris for the iPhone X launch in November. 

The line cleared 20 minutes after the doors to the store opened. It turned out that more people had been waiting to go to the Genius Bar and to browse than looking to buy a phone.

The various stores around the world reflected the more muted sentiment around this year's launch. But Marcus Barsoum, a 17-year-old high school student whom CNET spotted last year and the year before, put it best as he was grabbing an 8 Plus that he could resell. 

"Man, I just can't wait for this thing to be over," Barsoum said shortly before the doors opened.

San Francisco

Even close to Apple's home turf, the lines were modest -- dozens of people, far fewer than for last year's iPhone 7 launch.

At the Apple Store on San Francisco's Union Square, tourist Thais Aguilar, 38, of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, was contemplating  whether to get an iPhone 8 before she flies back home Saturday.  After a closer inspection, she decided to wait to buy an iPhone X back home -- and pay possibly three times as much as the $1,000 price in the US. 

"Yeah, I'm that crazy," she said.

Aguilar instead opted to buy a new Apple Watch Series 3 and planned to give her old watch to her mother. She wasn't alone:  Many customers seemed to prefer buying watches instead of phones. 

Still, another tourist, Yossi Benhaim, 33, of Tel Aviv, bought an iPhone 8 to surprise his wife. "She's going to be super excited," he said. He turned red when asked why he wouldn't wait to buy an iPhone X. "That's waaay too expensive. She would kill me!"

Things took an unexpected turn when a man stole an iPhone on display and raced out of the store, pursued by Apple staffers and a police officer who caught him a block away. The thief gave the phone back and wasn't charged with stealing, police said. 

Meanwhile, Maurico Souza, 47, of San Paulo, Brazil, was determined to get his first iPhone, to replace his Motorola Moto X, before flying home, and he was willing to spend hours of his last day in town waiting. However, he got inside in a matter of minutes and left with an 8 Plus moments later.

"I'm happy," he said. "Very happy."

First published Sept. 21 at 5:30 p.m. PT.
Update 6:02 p.m.: Adds background on the new iPhones.
Update 6:38 p.m.: Adds material from Singapore.
Update Sept. 22, 12:46 a.m.: Adds material from London.
Update Sept. 22, 4:50 a.m.: Adds material from China.
Update Sept. 22, 5:33 a.m.: Adds material from New York.
Update Sept. 22, 11:12 a.m.: Adds material from San Francisco.
Update Sept. 22, 11:27 a.m.: Adds Tim Cook interview with CNBC.

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