Where to buy an iPad 2 on Day 1

March 8, 2011, 12:35 PM UTC

A guide for shoppers who can’t wait for the lines to subside

Image: Apple Inc.

As you may have heard, Apple’s (AAPL) new and improved iPad 2 goes on sale in the U.S. Friday at 5 p.m. local time.

Unlike the first model, which was initially available only through Apple’s retail stores and selected Best Buy outlets, buyers this year have choices — more than 10,000 of them, each with their pros and cons. They will also have more models to contend with. Between 2 colors (black and white), 3 memory sizes (16GB, 32GB and 64GB), 2 wireless configurations (Wi-Fi only or Wi-Fi+3G) and 2 wireless carriers (Verizon and AT&T), there are 18 different iPad 2s to choose from. (Let’s not even get started with the multi-colored Smart Covers.)

Which option is best for you depends on where you live and how particular you are about the iPad you want.

Here are your choices:

  • Your nearest Apple Store. Apple has 236 retail outlets in the U.S., and if you live near one — particularly one of its flagship stores — that’s probably your best bet for getting the exact model you’re looking for. When supplies are short, Apple gives first preference to its own outlets, where it doesn’t have to share profits with a middleman. The lines are usually longer at the Apple stores, but the staff is friendlier, more efficient and better informed. Apple has been seen a lot of big first-day crowds come and go and it knows how to handle them briskly and thoughtfully. Two caveats: Apple Stores in suburban malls are lower on the corporate food chain and don’t have the same deep supplies. And if you live near Austin, Texas, watch out for the thousands of Apple zealots attending the South By Southwest conference this weekend.
  • Apple’s retail partners. BestBuy (BBY), Target (TGT), Wal-Mart (WMT) and Sam’s Club have all announced that they will also be selling iPad 2s on Friday, presumably also starting at 5 p.m. The advantage of these retail outlets is that there are thousands of them and probably several within driving distance. The disadvantage is that they usually only get a token first-day supply from Apple — sometimes as few as 10 units and rarely more than a few dozen. Best-Buy’s ads claims that their stores will have all every configuration in stock, which could mean as few as 18 iPads. It’s probably worth calling ahead to make sure they have sufficient quantities of the model you want.
  • AT&T and Verizon. The wireless carriers also have thousands of stores spread out across the country. Their selection will be more limited, however. They won’t be carrying the Wi-Fi-only models or units compatible with their competitor’s network. Mashable‘s Christina Warren helpfully suggests that outlets located near a big Apple Store are likely to be less crowded.
  • Apple.com. Apple’s online store began taking orders Friday at 1 a.m. PST (4 a.m. EST) and is offering free shipping. Deliveries won’t happen before Monday, but at least you’ll be certain to get the model you want. For a real bargain, check out the special clearance section, where the company is selling last year’s models for $100 off.

Also on Fortune.com:

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]