Why There’s So Much Confusion Around “Country of Origin” with Computers
Aside from a car and a smartphone, a laptop or desktop computer is likely to be one of the largest purchases you’ll make. And so it’d be nice to be able to buy one that doesn’t go to subsidize the CCP.
Sadly, I thought this was going to be an easy category to research, but it turned out to be one of the toughest. I thought it’d be easy because there are so many famous non-China brands out there. Asus and Acer are both based in Taiwan. HP and Dell have storied histories in the United States. And yet even though none of them literally sold themselves out to ownership in China (as IBM did to Lenovo), from a manufacturing perspective, all of them appear to rely 100% on China’s supply chain to some degree.
I am especially shocked at how quickly Taiwan-based companies not only allowed China to dominate manufacturing, but seem to be fueling and accelerating the process. Especially for Taiwan this is borderline tragic, given that it’s the CCP’s goal to “unify” Taiwan and China. And make no mistake–“unifying” doesn’t mean “one country, two systems”. Just ask Hong Kong how that went.
That said, there’s more to understanding what goes into your laptop than you can tell from the “Made In” label on the box. I used to be pretty knowledgeable about the PC industry, but I didn’t realize how the landscape has shifted so dramatically in just the last 5 years.
OEM vs. ODM
My knowledge of the personal computer industry dates back to the 1980s. As you might recall from Apple’s infamous “1984” commercial, Apple had it sights set on the IBM PC, but they were clueless back then that their real enemy was Microsoft. Apple kept tight control over its hardware and software designs, while Microsoft allowed its operating systems (first MS-DOS and then Windows) to be used on any hardware. IBM had a short-lived turn as the dominant player in the PC market, but as PC manufacturers like Dell, Gateway, HP built better mousetraps, IBM became just another player. In 2005, IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo, a company headquartered in Beijing.
Something else happened in the 2010s. PC technology became commoditized. Sure, there were still improvements being made to things like processor speed, but the basic construction of the “guts” of a PC was pretty much the same across every brand.
So PC companies that once manufactured their own equipment (Original Equipment Manufacturers, or OEMs) realized they could increase their profits by essentially allowing someone else to design and manufacture their brand’s products. They’d still slap their logo on the product, outfit it with some bells and whistles, and charge a premium price prior to shipping to consumers. But the foundation of the PC itself would be out of their hands and in the hands of an Original Design Manufacturer, or ODM.
Taiwan was at the cutting edge of this trend, and by 2011, 94% of all the world’s PCs started their life being manufactured by a Taiwan-based ODM. If you’ve purchased or used laptops from Acer, Alienware, Apple, Dell, Fujitsu, Gigabyte, HP, Lenovo, NEC, Toshiba, that PC actually was made by a Taiwan-based ODM, with names you probably haven’t heard, like Compal, Quanta, Wistron, Inventec, Pegatron, or Foxconn. In fact, Wiston spun off from Acer, and Pegatron spun off from ASUS.
All of the top ODMs are headquartered in cities like Taoyuan City and Taipei. If you’re not familiar with the difference between Taiwan and China, think of it this way. What if World War II had ended in a stalemate, and Hitler’s Third Reich were allowed to continue ruling one country called “the People’s Republic of Germany” while the current Germany ruled another country called “the Republic of Germany”? And furthermore, let’s say the People’s Republic of Germany continued to build their vast armies and asserted that the Republic of Germany was theirs and that they would “unify” with them one day, by force if necessary?
That’s pretty much the situation today. Which is why it’s mind-bogglingly crazy what these Taiwanese ODMs did. They moved all their manufacturing from Taiwan to China. Yes, the People’s Republic of China. They could have diversified by looking to other emerging market economies, but they saw cheap labor across the Taiwan Straits in China.
These Taiwan ODMs proceeded to invest billions of dollars into building manufacturing plants in China. It made a certain amount of sense logically. China was offering really cheap labor and resources, and it didn’t hurt that they spoke the same language. And yes, in the short run, the executives who made these decisions will get nice bonuses, and the shareholders of these companies will enjoy some nice profit margins.
But anyone with any understanding of history, especially those who live in Taiwan under the shadow of the People’s Liberation Army, should know that anything that the CCP allows ultimately benefits the CCP. And so while these Taiwan-based firms may think they’re in a equal partnership with China, ultimately the CCP holds the cards.
According to a poster on Quora, Pegatron is moving some of its manufacturing to Indonesia and Vietnam, Wistron to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, Compal to Vietnam, and Quanta to Thailand. This is likely mostly due to the tariffs that the Trump Administration placed on China and which are being continued by the Biden Administration having positive effects (if you’re an American, write to your representative and tell them to support the tariffs–because you know the CCP is pouring millions of dollars into lobbying against them).
I do hope some of this movement is also also due to some of these Taiwanese companies waking up and realizing that when you play with a snake, eventually the snake will bite you. But the damage is largely done–there is so much sunk cost entrenched in China from American and Taiwanese firms paying billions to build infrastructure in China that it’ll be difficult to completely break free.
A Chilling Example of What Happens When the CCP Gets Its Feelings Hurt
Have you heard of a PC brand called Gigabyte Technology? It’s a Taiwanese company that makes motherboards, but also makes its own computers.
In May 2021, Gigabyte created a page on its Web site that talked about its products that were made in Taiwan. “Unlike other brands that’ve chosen low-cost, low-quality contract manufacturing in China, Gigabyte is devoted to creating outstanding, high-quality components and laptop computers.” They also touted the fact that 90% of its laptops are made in Taiwan.
Gigabyte was doing what it should be doing in a free market capitalist system–creating advertising that differentiates itself from its competitors. In this case the value proposition was a strong one–we spend more money to manufacture our parts outside of China so you can expect higher quality.
Immediately, the Web site caught the attention of the Community Youth League of China (an organization whose name should send chills down the spines of any student of history who has heard of the Hitler Youth). They posted a screenshot of the Web page to Weibo with a single line: “GIgabyte, where did you get so much courage?” The post was flooded with more taunting remarks. “”You don’t stand a chance any more. Seriously, don’t waste your energy. You have crossed the red line of the central government.”
All of their products disappeared from Chinese e-commerce sites overnight. Their stock price plummeted 20%. Gigabyte immediately took down the page and apologized in language so groveling it rivaled John Cena and LeBron James. They promised to examine themselves and to rectify their wrong actions. They expressed support for the disastrous “One China” policy and berates its “poor internal management”. Heads likely rolled, perhaps not just figuratively. The media didn’t help matters, claiming that Gigabyte “mocked China”. No, it was just marketing.
This is what happens to anyone who crosses the CCP or makes them “lose face”. But from my perspective, their original ad was enough to convince me to put them on the top of the “best laptop not made in China” list.
Why after 40 years I’m quitting Apple
I have been an Apple fan my whole life. In 1983, my Dad got me an Apple //e which I loved and that paved the way for me to get a degree in Computer Science and work with computers for a career. That was followed by a Macintosh SE/30 in college and a series of Powerbooks, Performas, Power Macs, iMacs, and MacBooks. Not to mention lots of iPods and iPhones.
My Apple //e was a workhorse that still boots up 38 years later. Apple products made before 2004 were workhorses. But after 2004, and especially in recent years, I haven’t owned an Apple product that didn’t completely break, very often just a few months after the warranty expired. And yet, like every other loyal Apple cultist, I faithfully bought the next model.
The last straw came with my MacBook Pro 13 inch 2018. I bought the machine for a ridiculous amount of money. But as soon as the warranty expired, I noticed the case started expanding because the battery was swelling. Also, the keyboard was so cheap that letters were repeating. Apple had a program in place to replace my keyboard for “free”, but the “Geniuses” at the Apple Store told me I had to pay $200 to get the battery replaced before I could get the keyboard replaced. As I was preparing the laptop to bring it in for service, the screen broke because the battery had swelled so large. And the only response from Apple? I should have bought Applecare.
Apple had once owned manufacturing facilities in California and Colorado. But by the early 2000s, most of its product assembly was also in China, thanks to decisions (supported by Apple) of its ODMs like Foxconn and Quanta. The tariffs put in place by the Trump Administration and continued by the Biden Administration are already having a positive effect in terms of getting ODMs to diversify some manufacturing to places like India, Vietnam, and Thailand. But far too many of Apple’s suppliers are still in China. And the recent trends is tenuous as lobbyists with lots and lots of money (many of them funded right out of the coffers of the CCP) wield influence in Washington and in corporate boardrooms.
My absolute last straw was when I saw how Apple was lobbying against a bill that would prohibit slave labor. This is no longer the Apple of Woz and Jobs.
Best Laptops Not Made in China – Quick Ranking
|1||Gigabyte Aero 15||4.5||View on Amazon or NewEgg|
|2||Vaio Z||4.3||View on Amazon|
1. Gigabyte Aero 15 – Best Overall
I’m not just putting Gigabyte here because they’re being bullied by the impish Communist Youth League. And I’m not even putting them here just because they are one of those companies who stubbornly refused to move their laptop manufacturing out of Taiwan. I’m putting them here because they make really impressive laptops. And it might be years (if ever) before you can buy a laptop that comes from an ODM that doesn’t have the taint of China manufacturing.
Specifically, Gigabyte has two lines of laptops. The AERO line is geared more to creators (but also suitable for gaming), while the AORUS line is geared more specifically to gamers.
The AERO 15 has received rave reviews from industry publications. Laptop Magazine calls out its stunning 4K OLED display (the best display you can currently buy in a laptop), its sturdy all-aluminum design, its great performance, its bezel design, and its keyboard, which feels more like a manual, tactile keyboard than any other in the industry. Pocket Lint also mirrors the same positives, as does T3. There’s also a lot of positive comments about the top-of-the-line NVIDIA GeForce graphics cards (which will largely affect the price of the unit). As far as negatives, most of them are around fairly trivial things like fan noise.
Gigabyte’s main drawback is that unless you’re a power gamer or electronics aficionado, you probably haven’t even heard of it. Worse, whoever is maintaining their Amazon store isn’t doing a great job of keeping it in stock or organizing its listings from third party sellers who are creating a dizzying number of alternate listings. Hint: look for a listing that Ships from and is Sold by Amazon.com.
Here are some I was able to find:
AERO 15 OLED with RTX 3080 – $2,699.00
AERO 15 OLED with RTX 3070 – $1,999.00
AERO 15 OLED with RTX 3060 – $1,699.00
You can also look for configurations with larger 17″ screen sizes and differing capacities with SSD and RAM. And of course, you can also look for AORUS models if you want one that’s tuned for gaming.
If you want to avoid Amazon, you can always look at other places like NewEgg, Adorama, and B&H.
12/28/21 Update – Because of comments that questioned whether Gigabyte laptops were really made in Taiwan, I reached out to Gigabyte directly to confirm. Here’s what they told me.
Bottom line, Gigabyte produces a lot of things, and yes, they do have factories in China which they use to produce some of their components. That seems to be pretty unavoidable. I still think an AERO 15 or AERO 17 is a smart purchase, because it keeps the final assembly outside of China–meaning that Taiwanese factory workers still get some money for their economy and perhaps more importantly, a China-controlled entity doesn’t have the ability to build in some shenanigans before the unit is shipped.
- NOT made in China
- Made in Taiwan
- Best in the industry 4K OLED display
- Excellent manual keyboard
- Great bezel design
- Makes communists angry
- Fan can be loud
2. Vaio Z
If you haven’t been able to keep up with the changes in the laptop world in the past years, no one can blame you.
One of the bigger changes happened in 2014, when Sony exited the personal computer business. A new company named Vaio (named after Sony’s line of laptops) was spun out of Sony and sold (although Sony remains a minority stakeholder and still retains the intellectual property rights of the Vaio brand). The new company could do something Sony never could—focus on its market. The new company wisely retained much of the engineering talent, and wisely put the focus back on engineering great products rather than the market share land grab that Sony had tried unsuccessfully to do. And very wisely, they kept their manufacturing in Japan. They initially limited their market to Japan only, but has since started expanding internationally again.
But as with Gigabyte, you won’t see Vaio’s name plastered all over the marketplace, as they focus more on actual differentiation through their products than through their marketing.
The Vaio Z is the premium, flagship model. PC Magazine raves at its ultralight (2.32 lbs) and sturdy design, an all-carbon fiber design that was clearly unique in a field of monolithic and bulky ODM designs and yet packs a punch with one of the most powerful processors available for a laptop. It’s one of the most powerful ultralight laptops you can buy. Windows Central calls the design “stunning”.
The Vaio Z is not for everyone because of its premium price (Vaio does produce more affordable models like the SX14 and SX12 that are also engineered and manufactured in Japan). But if you’re looking for solid Japanese construction over a China-made laptop that’s built for obsolescence, you’ll want to check them out. And you won’t find any laptops (or many desktops) that run Photoshop faster or have nearly as nice a 4K display as this one. If you’re a creative professional and you or your company have the budget for the best of the best, you won’t do much better than this.w
- NOT made in China
- Made in Japan
- Japanese engineering at its best with a 100% carbon-fiber design
- Super light
- Super powerful, rivaling desktop workstations
- Excellent keyboard and color accurate 4K HDR display
- Fans can get loud in performance mode
I decided to leave my recommendations at two for this category, only because these are the two mainstream PC laptops that unequivocally state an intention to do their manufacturing in their local markets. As I mentioned above, tariffs and (hopefully) common sense will hopefully give us more options in the future (for example, in November 2020, Reuters reported that Foxconn will be moving some iPad and MacBook assembly from China to Vietnam). But until I see an actual “Made in Vietnam” label on a MacBook, I’ll remain skeptical.
Do you know of other laptops that have avoided the China trap? Let us know in the comments!