Here's a first look at a particularly rare bird: the Gold iPhone 5s, as well as a problem that's apparently not as uncommon: dealing with a huge activation hassle to set it up.
[Update / Synopsis: Some users who paid full price for an unlocked new Verizon iPhone 5s were experiencing "SIM not valid" issues during activation. The problem (which now appears to be resolved) was a known issue that Apple and Verizon have been working to resolve. Verizon's internal issue ticket number for this is 6504781, which you can supply when calling to skip over the remedial troubleshooting to get a status update on the problem.
The issue apparently involved IMEI numbers for certain devices that have not yet made it from Apple to Verizon, making it impossible to properly activate those devices. This is a temporary backend problem that should now be resolved, restoring really fast, beautiful "iPod touch" into the functioning iPhone 5s you paid for - DED]
Obtaining one of the roughly 20 Gold iPhone 5s available for sale at San Francisco's Union Square flagship Apple Store wasn't too difficult, if you don't mind spending the night on a sidewalk that smells like everyone who spends their nights on the sidewalk. If that sounds less than appealing, there's (fortunately) an app for that: TaskRabbit, which lets you pay somebody else to do things for you, like wait in line overnight to save your place. The going rate appeared to be around $100.
Upon arriving at 5AM, there were already 150 people in line. After about an hour of waiting, a representative of the store came by to inform those waiting that the 16 and 32GB versions of Gold iPhones were sold out. A bit later, another came by to apologize that all the Gold models had been claimed.
Fortunately, a colleague had used TaskRabbit to help obtain a prime spot in line, and had reserved a voucher for both himself and for one me, upgrading the situation. Voucher in hand (below), it was simply a matter of waiting another two hours for the store to actually open. Until then, Apple staffers came by with free bottles of water, coffee and snacks for those waiting.
Also priming the line with snacks was Gazelle, a used device trade-in site offering to sell previous iPhones (which promoted itself with a t-shirt on the first buyer of a Gold iPhone, who was interviewed by various members of the media, below). There was also a free agent offering top dollar trade-in cash on the spot, noting that she could offer more for an AT&T or Verizon model than a Sprint or T-Mobile trade in, which has less value (but still more than an Android phone, which loses nearly all of its value in the first year)
Apple also offers its own recycling service, which typically gives you less back, but lets you conveniently transfer the value of your old iPhone to the new one on the spot, with the additional caveats that you must sign up for new service and that your new phone apparently gets flagged as non-returnable.
Once the store opened, Apple staffers began servicing the line with the expedient efficiency of disaster relief workers doing triage in a war zone. Each customer gets walked to a different spot in the store for a fairly painless transaction conducted on a mobile EasyPay register. Upon leaving the Apple Store, the line of people waiting for remaining iPhone 5s models reached around the block to the cable cars on Powell Street.
Because I elected to upgrade via a full priced phone (saving my unlimited data plan from 2010), I was given the still shrink-wrapped phone to take home and set up. The new box design is virtually identical to iPhone 5, except that the product shot is designed to show off the new iOS 7, rather than the shiny chamfered edges of the phone as was the case last year. Next step: knife open that plastic and see what's inside.
The new phone ships with the same USB block, Lightning cable and EarPod headphones within a carrying case. Among the papers included are stickers, a regulatory sheet, and a spartan manual that is essentially a card with a labeled picture of the device, with instructions on the back that explain to simply to turn it on and start using it.
Plugged in, the device starts a setup session that asks for the language, region, requests to optionally connect to WiFi, then activates. In my case however, I got an error message saying the SIM card was not valid.
Plugged into iTunes, I could go no further than the same error. Entering DFU mode (turn off the phone, then back on with Home held down and plugged into iTunes), I got the same problem. An online live chat session with Verizon Wireless said the problem was "really weird," then verified the SIM by asking me to switch SIM cards with my existing phone (same problem), then manually checked my SIM by its number. SIM was deemed valid and now active.
Same problem continued. I was given the number for technical support, but realized my old phone had stopped working. Asked the agent to restore my previous service, which she did. Then called back to be told by the automated phone tree assistant I should call from another line. The chat agent suggested I go to "my local store." At least the Gold iPhone 5s is nice to look at.
After finally getting a live person on the phone, I was asked for the IMEI number of the phone, which I was told should start with some number that mine didn't start with. After being assured that it did in fact ship with a Verizon SIM, I was told the problem was being worked on by three people and put on hold. It was finally resolved by taking out the SIM, which at this point did allow me to skip past the activation without the SIM installed. I was also prompted to update iOS, but the update refused to complete.
I completed setup through iTunes, restoring the backup of my existing phone, then updated carrier settings, then began setting up the phone, which involved entering the passcode, entering the iCloud account. Without mobile service, I opened up Twitter, which told me to enter my Twitter password, which was interrupted by a request to enter my Facebook password, which was interrupted by a separate request to enter the password for something else (i forget. I also forgot the password for one of my Twitter accounts. What happened to iCloud Keychain?)
I was also told two more times that there were new carrier settings available, and, after installing them, that the installation was successful. At this point I tried to re-insert my SIM card, which interrupted the system and notified me that I needed to activate. This again failed with "SIM not valid." At least the Gold iPhone 5s is nice to look at.
I could now install the iOS 7.0.1 update, which I figured might resolve the issue. After installing I was again prompted to install a carrier settings update, which again said it was successful. I was also again prompted to log into iCloud with my password. Once welcomed back to the Home screen, I inserted my SIM card again and was again told validation was needed, and once again that the SIM was not valid.
At this point, the setup has consumed nearly as many hours as the wait in line. I was also again informed, for the second time by iTunes, that four apps I'd previously deleted were not able to be copied over because they couldn't be found. At least the Gold iPhone 5s is nice to look at.
Following activation instructions on Verizon's website, I entered the new phone's IMEI number and was instructed to swap SIM cards. Upon doing this, I was again told validation was needed, and once again that the SIM was not valid. This apparently will require a trip to a Verizon Wireless Store.