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.
If you Google “laptops not made in China”, you’ll see a lot of blogs (including this one). But even among all of us there are a lot of different recommendations and opinions. Sadly, in many cases, whether due to ignorance or willful misleading, some bloggers will cite brands like Apple and Dell as “not made in China”, which that’s not even close to being true.
Why There’s So Much Confusion Around “Country of Origin” with Computers
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 sold ownership of their company to China (as IBM did to Lenovo), 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. I’m shocked because 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.
Best Laptops Not Made in China – Quick Ranking
1. Gigabyte Aero 17 – Best Overall
I’m not just putting Gigabyte here because they were 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. I wrote to them asking them to confirm which units are made in Taiwan. The answer is both. Here was their response, which I was very happy with.
The AERO 17 has received rave reviews from industry publications. TechRadar says it is “one of the most powerful mobile workstations for creative professionals you’re going to find”. Laptop Mag praises its speed and gorgeous 4K OLED display (the best display you can currently buy in a laptop) and its keyboard. PC Magazine raves at its performance, and also praises its screen and keyboard.
The AERO series comes in different configurations, and it’s kind of maddening how their naming conventions over the years have introduced a lot of confusion. Their distribution is also not as clean as it should be; it’s sometimes difficult to find the model you want in the configuration you want. But the key difference in pricing is going to come down to the processing power you want, the graphics card you want, and the display you want. Here’s a quick guide:
Screen Size – The number after AERO refers to its screen size: AERO 17 is a 17″ display, AERO 16 is a 16″ display, AERO 15 is a 15″ display, and AERO 5 is a 15.6 OLED display. Not confusing at all. I’m focusing mostly on the 17″ model for this review, but all other other units will be made in Taiwan too.
Processor – All AERO laptops will use an Intel i9 or Intel i7 processor. The latest models will have 12th generation processors. The highest end are i9-12900HK (running at speeds from 2.5GHz-5GHz) and the lower end will use the i7-12700H (running at 2.3GHz to 4.7GHz). You can still find units with 11th generation processors too.
Video Graphics – AERO laptops will use NVIDIA GeForce RTX, either the higher end 3080 with 16GB or the lower end 3070 with 8GB. I’m use the phrase “lower end” in a relative sense; even the lowest end on the new models blows away most previous models.
Memory and Storage – Typically you’ll see configurations with 16GB to 32GB of memory, and 1TB or 2TB SSDs for storage.
Like I said, their distribution to US retailers is kind of a mess, but if you arm yourself with knowledge you can not only find the unit you want, you can get a pretty good deal.
B&H Photo and Video seems to have the best organization of AERO laptops, the cleaning product listings, and are the most consistently in stock. Right now I see several 16″ units in stock, all the latest 12th generation Intel chips.
Best Buy also does a nice job of listing out the current models relatively cleanly; the titles of their products show the screen size + the CPU + the memory + the GPU + the hard drive. They sometimes have a hard time keeping things in stock because their prices tend to be competitive.
Adorama also has their Gigabyte AERO and AORUS lineup pretty well organized, with competitive prices.
And then there’s Amazon. Amazon’s listings can be really confusing, with names like GIGABYTE AERO 16 YE5 – 16″ 4K/UHD+ Samsung AMOLED, Intel Core i9-12900H, NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 Ti Laptop GPU 16GB GDDR6, 64GB DDR5 RAM, 2TB SSD, Win11 Pro (AERO 16 YE5-A4US958HP). Worse, often you have third party sellers who price gouge.
But if you know what you’re looking for, you might find a pretty good price. If you can find a model Shipped and Sold from Amazon.com, grab it. Otherwise, I’d suggest going to one of the other retailers above.
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. 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”. 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.
The Vaio Z is not for everyone because of its premium pric, but Vaio does produce more affordable models like the SX14 and SX12 that are also engineered and manufactured in Japan. If you can find them on Amazon sold directly from Amazon.com or VAIO USA (run by Trans Cosmos American in California, whom Vaio has tapped to do their distribution), it’s safe. You can also find them at Adorama.
If you’re looking for solid Japanese construction over a China-made laptop that’s built for obsolescence, you’ll want to check Vaio out.
Panasonic produces four models of Toughbook laptops. They’re appropriately named. They’re specially designed for use in tough environments where they may need to withstand a lot of rough treatment. They’re generally available only through B2B channels for industries such as governmental agencies, public safety agencies, utilities, field service organizations, and construction. But some enterprising third party sellers do sell them to the public via Amazon.
At a time when made-in-China laptops are literally disintegrating before our eyes, it’s refreshing to see this kind of engineering, from the rock-solid display, to a case that protects from water and debris.
These are still made in Kobe, Japan. Here’s a fascinating video from a few years ago that shows their factory in Kobe for one of their older models. They’ve only gotten more powerful and more durable since.
Back in 2020, Samsung announced that it was closing its last PC factory in China, on the heels of when it stopped making smartphones in China. Given Apple’s and Foxconn’s woes in China since, this will go down in history as an incredibly prescient move.
Surely enough, the newest models like this 15.6″ Galaxy Book 2 Pro and the equivalent 13″ model appear to be made out of Vietnam (there are some reports of units being made in South Korea, but those are likely going to their local market first).
I’m impressed by the speed at which Samsung exited China’s manufacturing across all their product lines, from their smartphones to their computers and even their accessories like ear pods. Yes, many of the components are still made there, but at least they’re taking one step away from total reliance on China as so many other industries have done.
Do you know of other laptops that have avoided the China trap? Let us know in the comments!