UPDATE: iPad 2 online orders to take 2-3 weeks

Apple has started taking online orders for the iPad 2 tablet Friday morning and its stores will begin sales at 5pm EST today.

Those ordering online (the website kicked in at 4am EST) are being promised free shipping and engraving for the "thinner, lighter, faster" iPad 2, which starts at $499 – the same price as the original (Take a first look at the iPad 2 here).

A report Friday morning from Apple Insider] said that early birds who ordered online should get their iPads in two or three days, but that those ordering later in the morning were being informed that their tablets won't arrive for two or three weeks.

Wall Street Apple watcher Gene Munster of Piper Jaffrey has said he thinks Apple will sell more than 1 million iPad 2 units over the next four weeks, though he doesn't expect lines to be as long as they were for the original iPad since Apple has far more distribution outlets this time around. Last year, the iPad was initially available at about 1,200 Apple Stores and Best Buy stores, whereas this year Target, Walmart, AT&T and Verizon are also hawking the tablet at their stores.

VERIZON VS. AT&T: Which offers the best iPad 2 plans?

The iPad is by far not the only game in tablet town anymore, with Google Android-powered devices such as the Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab gaining popularity as well. But Apple's addition of cameras to the iPad 2, along with a much more powerful processor in the dual-core A5 and more functional software in iOS 4.3 shows that the company isn't getting too comfortable with its lead.

Fresh research from market watcher ChangeWave shows that the iPad still dominates tablet purchasing plans, with about 27 per cent of 3,000 people surveyed saying they plan to buy a tablet and more than 4 out of 5 of them indicating an iPad will be their choice.

The iPad 2's availability slips in ahead of RIM's PlayBook tablet release, which is expected in April. The PlayBook is seen as a contender in the business tablet market, where customers have expressed both excitement and frustration with the iPad.

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