Many consumers waited in lines for hours -- sometimes enduring chilly temperatures and overnight thunderstorms -- to remember Steve Jobs, Apple's visionary who died last week.
The company's first iPhone release since Jobs' death turned into another tribute. Some customers even joked that the new model 4S stood "for Steve."
Tony Medina, a student from Manhattan, stood outside Apple's flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue for nine hours, waiting through rain. He had originally planned to order the phone online but decided to join a crowd of about 200 people to honor Jobs.
"For loyalty, I felt I had to do the line," he said. "I had to say thank you."
The new phone, which went on sale Friday in seven countries, is faster than the previous model and comes with better software and an improved camera. Yet the unveiling comes at a time when Apple is finding it difficult to maintain the excitement of previous iPhone introductions.
For starters, the phone is more widely available than in the past. In addition to Apple stores, it's also sold by three wireless carriers: AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp. and Verizon Wireless. Some Best Buy, Target and Walmart stores also carry the phones, as do authorized resellers.
Buyers were also able to preorder the phone on Apple's website and have it shipped to their homes or offices.
Many diehard Apple fans and investors were disappointed that Apple did not launch a more radically redesigned new model -- an iPhone 5. It's been more than a year since Apple's previous model was released.
That also may have contributed to smaller gatherings at some Apple locations.
"People are not as excited about this version as they might have been" if an iPhone 5 came out," said Charles Prosser, a retired teacher and computer technician from Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Even so, hundreds of buyers camped out in front of stores for hours to be among the first to get an iPhone 4S.
Steve Wozniak, who created Apple with Jobs in a Silicon Valley garage in 1976, was first in line at a store in Los Gatos, Calif., having arrived on his Segway the afternoon before.
Wozniak, who typically waits in line for new Apple products, said he barely slept Thursday night as he was busy chatting with Apple fans, taking photos and giving autographs. Wozniak pre-ordered two new iPhones. He bought two more Friday.
"I just want to be part of an important event, so I feel it more deeply," he said.
Many said the event resembled a remembrance to Jobs, who died a day after Apple Inc. announced the new phone.
Emily Smith, a Web designer, checked in to the line in New York on the location-centric social network Foursquare. She got a virtual Steve Jobs badge that read: "Here's to the crazy ones. ThankYouSteve."
In Chicago, Nicole Pacheco dragged her brother and a friend out to buy Apple's latest gadget.
"I wanted to see how it was, to come out here for once," she said as she looked at the line that stretched past her. "We're kind of a memory for Steve Jobs. It's one of his last inventions. It kind of motivated me to get the next one."
Apple and phone companies started taking orders for the iPhone 4S last Friday. Apple said Monday that more than 1 million orders came in, breaking the record set by last year's model, which was available in fewer countries and on fewer carriers.
Jobs' death could be helping sales. Marketing experts say products designed by widely admired figures such as Jobs usually see an upsurge in sales after their death.
The base model of the iPhone 4S costs $199 in the U.S. with a two-year contract. It comes with 16 gigabytes of storage. Customers can get 32 gigabytes for $299 and 64 gigabytes for $399. The phones come in white or black.
The phones also debuted Friday in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Britain. They are coming to 22 more countries by the end of the month.
Besides a better processor and camera, the new phone has a new operating system that allows users to sync content without needing a computer. It also includes a futuristic, voice-activated service that responds to spoken commands and questions such as "Do I need an umbrella today?"
The new features appealed to Dina Nguyen, who came to the Apple store in Palo Alto, Calif., the same location where Jobs was known to show up on sale days. She and her brother, Kennedy, picked up four iPhones for their family.
The siblings said it was a bit sentimental to get the phones now, right after Jobs' death.
"He left a good legacy. He had a good life. He wanted to make people happy," Kennedy Nguyen said. "It's good to support that."