NEW YORK -- Apple Inc's iPad hits store shelves on Saturday after months of intense buzz, giving shoppers their first chance to decide whether the tablet device is worth all the breathless buildup.

At Apple's flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City, cheers went up from employees as shoppers finally entered the shop at 9 a.m., emerging a few minutes later carrying the first iPads, a device touted as a bridge between a laptop and smartphone.

Two hours after the doors opened, dozens of hopeful shoppers remained in line, while inside the store those who had already picked up their iPads cracked them open and began passing judgment.

Simon Cox, a high school math teacher visiting from Manchester, England, immediately used his iPad to email friends and family from the store.

"It looks fantastic, so nice to hold and play and touch," he said, noting that the device is smaller than he expected. "It's easier to carry around. I certainly know I'll use it when I'm out and about."

Technology experts also rushed to have a firsthand look at the gadget, taking apart the iPad to catalogue its components and inner workings. One firm, iFixit, an Apple parts and repair specialist, revealed the iPad includes chips from Samsung Electronics, Broadcom, and Texas Instruments.

Wall Street is curious to see if the device -- which went on sale at the company's more than 200 retail outlets in the United States, along with many Best Buy stores -- can win a mass following and will be monitoring crowds this weekend to gauge its appeal.

If so, it could provide another boost to Apple, whose stock has been hitting record highs, as well as companies that provide parts and components for the iPad.

Crowds built steadily at stores around the country beginning early Friday, with shoppers waiting at locations in New York, Washington, Boston and San Francisco. But the lines were noticeably shorter than those that ushered in the iPhone in 2007.

Will Kiefer, 28, who waited at a store at Burlington Mall, north of Boston, said he hoped the iPad would allow him to break away from his desktop computer -- and avoid buying a laptop.

"I think this will do everything for me that I need. ... I'll do my random New York Times reading from the iPad," said Kiefer, a freelance software developer who is among those hoping to developing some apps for the new device.

In Richmond, Virginia, about 100 people gathered at an Apple store, drinking coffee and mingling in a festive, holiday atmosphere.

Matt Reidy, IT director at a company called snagajob.com, said he got there at 1 a.m. and was first in line. "My wife thinks I'm crazy," said Reidy, 43. "She said I'd be the oldest person out there."

Because customers have been able to pre-order the gadget since mid-March, there was little reason to stand in line for the launch. Those who ordered early enough online get their iPads on Saturday, via pickup at a store or home delivery.

Analysts say the company received several hundred thousand pre-orders, with sales estimated at anywhere from 4 million to 7 million in the gadget's first year.  

MUCH AT STAKE

Apple has plenty riding on the iPad, which it introduced in January and calls a new category of device: a lightweight media consumption device that tries to fuse the best attributes of a smartphone and a laptop.  

The iPad's touchscreen measures 9.7 inches. At 1.5 pounds, the device resembles an oversized iPhone and runs on the same operating system. It starts at $499 for a short-range Wi-Fi model, topping out at more than $800 for a 3G-enabled version.

The iPad is designed for using media of all sorts, including games, video, pictures, e-books and magazines. It can access roughly 150,000 already existing iPhone apps, as well as new ones freshly designed for the iPad.

Apple is also launching its own digital book business to compete with the Kindle from Amazon.com Inc and other e-readers and e-books.

The iPad is the first in a wave of lightweight tablet devices expected to land this year from rival vendors, including Hewlett-Packard Co and Dell Inc.

The question is whether the iPad can attract a mainstream following beyond the first few months of excitement.

Technology enthusiasts have praised the iPad's beautiful screen and fast Web browser, but also have pointed out some missing pieces. It lacks a camera, cannot run more than one app at a time, and it cannot view popular video sites that use Adobe's Flash software.

Reviewers at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal said the iPad works nicely for Web surfing and multimedia -- but may appeal less to people who need computers for more heavy-duty chores.  

Saturday's iPad launch is only in the United States, and only for the Wi-Fi model.