New iPad hits stores at 8 a.m. Friday

Apple’s retail and online stores will kick off sales of the new iPad early this Friday in the U.S., the U.K, Japan, and a host of other countries.

Tablet buyers around the world eager to buy the new iPad will get a chance at 8 a.m. on Friday.

Apple’s retail stores and its online store will both start selling the third-generation iPad at 8 a.m. local time this Friday across several countries, Apple announced today. The shift represents an early opening for Apple Stores, which normally unlock their doors at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m.

The new iPad will initially sell in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In the U.S., the new iPad will also be available at Best Buy, Radio Shack, Sam’s Club, Target, and Walmart, Apple added.

Buyers who snag a new iPad at an Apple retail outlet will be offered a free setup service from a store employee who can help them customize the tablet, set up e-mail, and load new apps. Such a service is a thoughtful option, especially for first-time buyers. I teach an iPad course, and many students arrive in class with no knowledge of how to initially set up their tablets.

A personal pickup service also lets customers purchase an iPad from anywhere and then pick up the item at their local store.

The new iPad will travel even further around the world on March 23, reaching Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macau, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.

So even at 8 a.m., what are your chances of actually scoring an iPad on Friday?

An Apple representative told CNET last week that “beginning Friday, March 16, the new iPad will be available for purchase at Apple’s retail stores and select Apple Authorized Resellers on a first come, first-served basis.”

The “first-come, first-served” part means that anyone eager to grab a new iPad on Day One will need to arrive at the store a lot earlier than 8 a.m. and be ready to while away the morning hours waiting in line.

Unveiling the new iPad a week ago, Apple sold out of its initial stock in online pre-orders within two days. Current estimates at Apple’s online store show a wait time of 2-3 weeks.

So, if you’re eyeing the new iPad, are you better off waiting in line or online? I second the motion from my CNET colleague Scott Stein in advising people to order online.

Last year my wife and I stood in line outside our local Apple Store early one morning waiting to pick up a couple of iPad 2 tablets. After several hours we finally reached the doors of the store only to discover that all available stock had been sold out. We went home that day, ordered a couple of the tablets online, and received them a few weeks later.

Of course, there are always those techies who want to be the first one on the block to own a new device. But for the average consumer, a few weeks wait isn’t going to be a hardship.

I’ll certainly drop by my Apple Store this weekend to check out the new iPad. But even if I decide to buy one and the store is sold out, I’ll just go home to my trusty browser, place my order, and wait for the tablet to reach my doorstep.