By Thuy Ong
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Apple fans lined up in several Asian and European cities to buy the iPad mini on Friday, but the device, priced above rival gadgets, drew smaller crowds than previous launches.
About 50 people waited for the Apple store in Sydney, Australia, to open, where in the past the line had stretched for several blocks when the company debuted new iPhones.
At the head of Friday's line was Patrick Li, who had been waiting since 4:30 am and was keen to get his hands on the 7.9-inch slate.
"It's light, easy to handle, and I'll use it to read books. It's better than the original iPad," Li said.
There were queues of 100 or more outside Apple stores in Tokyo and Seoul when the device went on sale, but when the company's flagship Hong Kong store opened staff appeared to outnumber those waiting in line.
Europe also saw shorter lines than for past launches. About 100 fans queued in the rain in Amsterdam, while in London's Regent Street about 50 people were still waiting to buy a device a couple of hours after an Apple store opened its doors.
The iPad mini marks Apple's first foray into the smaller-tablet segment, and the latest salvo in a global mobile-device war that has engulfed combatants from Internet search leader Google Inc
Microsoft's 10-inch Surface tablet, powered by the just-launched Windows 8 software, went on sale in October, while Google and Amazon now dominate sales of smaller, 7-inch multimedia tablets.
Unveiled last week, the iPad mini has won mostly positive reviews, with criticism centring on a screen considered inferior to rivals' and a lofty price tag. The new tablet essentially replicates most of the features of its full-sized sibling, but in a smaller package.
"Well, first of all it's so thin and light and very cute - so cute!" said iPad mini customer Ten Ebihara at the Apple store in Tokyo's upscale Ginza district.
At $329 for a Wi-Fi only model, the iPad mini is a little costlier than predicted but some analysts see that as Apple's attempt to retain premium positioning.
Some investors fear the gadget will lure buyers away from Apple's $499 flagship 9.7-inch iPad, while proving ineffective in combating the threat of Amazon's $199 Kindle Fire and Google's Nexus 7, both of which are sold at or near cost.
Tim Price, waiting in London to buy a device for his father, said the iPad was easier to use than competing tablets. "The usability is unmatched," he said.
Also on Friday, Apple rolled out its fourth-generation iPad, with the same 9.7-inch display as the previous version but with a faster A6X processor and better Wi-Fi. Both devices were going on sale in more than 30 countries.
Apple will likely sell between 1 million and 1.5 million iPad minis in the first weekend, far short of the 3 million third-generation iPads sold last March in their first weekend, according to Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster.
"The reason we expect fewer iPad minis compared to the 3rd Gen is because of the lack of the wireless option and newness of the smaller form factor for consumers," Munster said in a note to clients. "We believe that over time that will change."
Reviewers have applauded Apple for squeezing most of the iPad's features into a smaller package that can be comfortably manipulated with one hand.
James Vohradsky, a 20 year-old student who previously queued for 17 hours at the Sydney store to buy the iPhone 5, only stood in line for an hour and a half this time.
"I had an iPad 1 before, I kind of miss it because I sold it about a year ago. It's just more practical to have the mini because I found it a bit too big. The image is really good and it's got the fast A5 chip too," Vohradsky said.
The iPad was launched in 2010 by late Apple boss Steve Jobs and since then has taken a big chunk out of PC sales, upending the industry and reinventing mobile computing with its apps-based ecosystem.
A smaller tablet is the first device to be added to Apple's compact portfolio under Tim Cook, who took over from Jobs just before his death a year ago. Analysts credit Google and Amazon for influencing the decision.
Some investors worry that Apple might have lost its chief visionary with Jobs, and that new management might not be able to stay ahead of the pack as rivals innovate and encroach on its market share.
(Additional reporting by Mariko Lochridge in Tokyo, Stefanie McIntyre in Hong Kong, Miyoung Kim in Seoul, Roberta Cowan in Amsterdam and Stephen Eisenhammer in London; Writing by Noel Randewich and Edwin Chan in San Francisco; Editing by Phil Berlowitz, Alex Richardson and Helen Massy-Beresford)