I bought an iPhone 12 in person at the Apple Store – here's how different it felt

Apple Store
(Image credit: Future)

I finally have an iPhone 12 in hand, but I've never experienced an Apple Store launch spectacle quite like this, and I've been covering these long lines for TechRadar – ever since the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 6 launch lines.

Gone are the Apple diehards willing to wait two days (sometimes more) in a line that would eventually snake around an entire New York City block. And gone are the old media that ask the same silly questions: "What time did you get here? All this for a phone?"

Instead of teeming with early adopters of tech, the line I experienced was subdued, appropriately socially distanced and strictly temperature checked on both launch days – the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro released on October 23, and the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max came out on November 13.

In a word, it felt safe.

Not every experience has been like that for me in NYC, especially at grocery stores where it's sometimes a free-for-all. At the Apple Store, however, it's mandatory to wear masks properly and everyone in line followed that guideline from what I could see. I got my new iPhone in a process that was actually quicker than past years.

If you're going to go in person to buy an iPhone 12, here's what to expect.

Apple Store iPhone order

(Image credit: Future)

Know before you go

When trying to pre-order iPhone 12 deals, I ran into trouble: shipments were already three weeks out by the time I got the Apple Store website to load – at least for the iPhone 12 Pro in Pacific Blue and the happy medium 256GB of storage that I really wanted.

Pro tip: even when iPhone 12 shipments begin to slip beyond day one, you can order a phone and pick it up at an Apple Store a bit quicker. The flagship Apple Store 5th Avenue in New York City had time slots open. I was in luck.

It's best to have an order in place ahead of time. On launch day, I saw Apple Store employees turn away several people who attempted to buy the new iPhone as walk-ins. That seemed to be the case for the entire day at my particular location. 

While I did have a specific time slot, I got in line late after taking these photos. From my experience in past years, it won't be held against you if you're late, and that was true in 2020. But avoid showing up early because you may have to wait out of line. The scheduling system is there to avoid overcrowding.

Apple Store test

(Image credit: Future)

Have you ever taken a test to buy an iPhone?

"Do you feel sick or been exposed to the coronavirus?" 

No, of course not. It immediately hit me: this is the new mandatory "Did you pack your bags yourself?" question at the airport. I felt fine, thankfully. In my experience, sometimes people believe you when you say this. Sometimes they don't.

My temperature was checked – and so was the forehead of everyone in line (don't worry, the infrared thermometer doesn't actually touch anyone's forehead). Three weeks later, at the second iPhone 12 launch, the thermometers were pointed at everyone's wrists, so the procedure may vary at your location.

Markers were on the pavement to denote where to stand so that you're six feet from the next person. No, these aren't fancy Apple decals like you'd hope – just regular strips of tape.

The front of the line followed the six-feet-apart rule better than the back, which winds down turns a side street, away from employees' eyes. But no one ever came closer than three to four feet from another person.

Apple Store safety

(Image credit: Future)

Apple's historically wide tables came in handy

The Apple Store on 5th Ave is deceptively massive. The entrance is a giant glass cube that contains a glowing white Apple logo hanging from the top and a spiraling metal steps that leads to the iPhone 12 and iPad Air 4 goodies below-ground. 

Before heading down these steps by myself (at a typical launch you're ushered in in groups), I was put my hand under the hand sanitizer dispenser. This is the first of many hand sanitizer available throughout the Apple Store.

Apple Store tables

(Image credit: Future)

Every Apple Store I've been to has very long and fairly wide wooden tables, and at a normal point in history, a friendly employee will sidle up next to you and work on your order or problem if you're at the Apple Genius Bar.

But, today, the full width of Apple's tables are used to force social distancing. It puts a physical barrier on your natural inclination to get close and friendly to the person you're talking (and who is going to give you a brand new iPhone).

Apple Store

(Image credit: Future)

I brought up the QR code from my email confirmation and the Apple Store employee was able to bring up my order information while staying socially distant. I was given my phone and was free to look at iPhone 12 cases. Ultimately, I was able to exit out of a different door (not all Apple Stores have this helpful way to keep traffic flowing).

Apple Store

(Image credit: Future)

My experience in buying the iPhone 12 Pro lacked the pomp and circumstance of a typical Apple launch day, and I do miss that. But did I feel safe? Yes, in this given location there was ample space to give me that sense of security. I felt comfortable enough with the measures in place that I'd do it again. Deep down inside, however, I'm hoping that the lines and media attention return for the next year's iPhone 13 launch for so many reasons.

Matt Swider