Apple’s third-generation iPad drew the expected crowds for its big public debut on Friday. The hubbub started a minute after midnight, when select Best Buy and Walmart locations opened their doors to customers. There were lines at some third-party resellers, but the bigger throngs of diehards went straight to the mother ship, the Apple Store, which started selling iPads at 8am local time.

Protesters from also made their presence known at the launch lines, after reaching over 250,000 signatures in their online petition demanding ethical treatment for Apple workers. VentureBeat’s Sean Ludwig caught sight of some protesters holding a large sign (see gallery) at the flagship 5th Avenue Apple Store in New York City. Protestor Charlene Carruthers told VentureBeat she wanted Apple to ‘think different’ about worker treatment. At the downtown San Francisco store, a dozen protesters handed out fliers. Protester William Winters said they wanted “an iPad or iPhone that doesn’t have blood in it.”

Some customers camped out the night before, and, as always, a few cheaters paid stand-ins to handle the tedious waiting part. At the front of the 5th Avenue store line was Greg Packer, a retired New Yorker who was in line since noon on Monday. Packer told us he was sponsored by the company Buy Back World to stand in line, and he wore a T-shirt for that company.

“I’ve been sleeping here in a chair since Monday,” Packer said. “I’m most excited about the new iPad’s MiFi abilities and better pictures.”

In San Francisco, rain dampened a bit of the excitement. Outside the Market Street Apple store, the line went half-way down the block to an empty parking lot where customers were served free coffee and water. Most of the people in line showed up that morning and only had to wait an hour to get an iPad. A block away at the Verizon store, there were iPads in stock but no customers. In order to buy an iPad from Verizon, you have to sign up for a Verizon iPad data plan. A few doors down, the Radio Shack had pre-sold all its stock the week before. The AT&T store had three people waiting outside, but didn’t open its doors until 9am.

The new iPad isn’t a radical departure from its predecessor, the iPad 2, but it is a solid upgrade that’s getting great reviews. The form factor is almost the same, but the new iPad is slightly thicker and heavier. The device’s big selling point is a stunning new Retina display, which packs in four-times as many pixels as the iPad 2 (for 3.1 million pixels total). The device has a dual-core A5X processor to keep up with the heavier graphics processing and an improved 5-megapixel back-facing camera. Customers who opt for the Wi-Fi + 4G version will enjoy zippier 4G LTE speeds on Verizon or AT&T.

Here are some photos of iPad lines from VentureBeat’s outposts in New York City and Nashville, Tennessee:

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Photos and additional reporting by Sean Ludwig, Tom Cheredar

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