Last updated 11/23/23. Original publish date: 12/18/22.
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 – 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 series has received rave reviews from industry publications. PC Magazine calls it a “powerhouse content-creation laptop that has the chops to handle everything from animation to AAA gaming.” The Verge calls it an “effective combination of a color-accurate OLED screen, impressive CPU power, and portability”.
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.
Processor – All AERO laptops will use an Intel i9 or Intel i7 processor. The latest models will have 13th generation processors. The highest end are i9-13900H (running at 5.4GHz) and the lower end will use the i7-13700H (running at 5.0GHz). You can still find units with 12th generation processors too.
Video Graphics – AERO laptops use NVIDIA GeForce RTX 4070 GPU.
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 OLED: 16.0″ 16:10 Thin Bezel 4K UHD+ 3840×2400 60Hz OLED, NVIDIA GeForce RTX 4070 GPU 8GB GDDR6, Intel Core i9-13900H, 32GB DDR5 RAM, 1TB SSD, Win11 Pro (AERO 16 OLED BSF-A3US964SP).
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.
Here’s a new laptop company that’s taking the tech world by storm. The Verge calls it “one of the most exciting notebooks we’ve ever seen”. Wired says it’s “one of those machines almost everyone should buy”. CNET says “it was designed from the ground up to be as customizable, upgradable, and reparable as technologically possible. That’s a lot of -able, and boy does it deliver”. PC World says “Come for the repairable, upgradeable design and swappable ports. Stay for the great screen and powerful processor”.
The concept behind Framework is revolutionary, but it shouldn’t be.
There used to be a time when, if you owned a computer, you could upgrade it or repair it yourself. The computer makers made it easy to get inside and add memory, swap a hard drive, or even upgrade graphics cards and processors.
Then companies, in the name of “making things easy” started locking down their computers. If something broke, no problem, just bring it in and we’ll swamp out another one. You’d better just hope you make it one day before the warranty ends. Or better yet, buy “AppleCare” because you know it’s going to break. And don’t even think about expanding the memory or the hard drive, or having a charged battery that you could swap out (remember those?)
A few years ago my MacBook broke (outside of warranty, of course). The keyboard kept repeating, the battery puffed up, and the monitor went dead. I attempted to repair it myself, but Apple clearly designed it so that even the simplest part couldn’t be repaired or swapped out without the whole thing collapsing like a house of cards.
Framework’s philosophy isn’t to lock down its systems so that you need to take it to an oxymoronic “Genius” in a polo shirt. They designed their whole laptop so that parts could be swapped in and out modularly. Broken keyboard? Swap it out. Need more memory? Just add more. Screen cracked? Just replace it. Outdated processor? Swap in a new one. Need more hard drive space? Buy one from any online retailer and put it in.
There are a lot of things to love.
They chose Taiwan as the place where they assemble their laptops. Taiwan is also where they manufacture the mainboard and major subassemblies.
As for the modules, each is labeled clearly with its country of origin. Many are made in China, but at least there’s more transparency about it than with usual laptops. And you have the option of buying your own memory, power adapter, and storage, all of which can be not made in China.
3. VAIO Laptops
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.
While the VAIO is an excellent computer, and extremely popular in Japan, it’s had some challenges getting American distributors (mainly because other laptop companies pour tons of money into making sure they show up on top of Amazon, Adorama, Best Buy, etc.)
The good news is that VAIO USA (run by Trans Cosmos American in California, whom Vaio has tapped to do their distribution) has set up a Web site where you can buy directly from them. Even better, their Web site has a whole page talking about their Japanese manufacturing.
When I chatted with VAIO, they confirmed the following
- Their top-of-the line SX Series is made in Japan – I was able to corroborate this across multiple sources.
- Their F Series is made in Taiwan – I had a hard time confirming this, but this is what I was told.
- As for their cheapest models, the “FE Series”, I was told “we need to check the manufactured country with the backend team”. I think we all know what that means.
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, when I first published this article in 2021, there were Galaxy Book2 Pro laptops being made in South Korea (for the South Korean market) and in Vietnam (for the reason of the world).
Today, the reality is much more muddled. The Book3 is still listed as “made in Vietnam” on some sites, but on other sites, including e-commerce sites in India and Reddit, it looks like most are being made in China.
We’ll see if this changes with the Book4. In the meantime, I’ll leave this on the list in the off chance you find a model made in Korea or Vietnam. But be sure to check the physical box.
Last, but certainly not least, is System76.
I originally didn’t include them because I figured the market for laptops with the Linux OS is limited (most people prefer Windows or MacOS). I also didn’t include them originally because while many of their desktop systems and their keyboards are made in Denver, they are very tight-lipped about where their other products and their components come from. It took a bunch of Redditors to figure out that they outsource production of their laptops to China. Specifically, a Taiwanese company called Clevo manufactures the parts in China (which is only their mortal enemy set on conquering them and subjugating them to communist rule, but other than that they’re fine) and sends the parts to the US to be assembled so that System76 can say it’s “assembled in the USA”.
What’s most ironic is that the “76” in System76’s name is based on “1776”, the year of the American revolution, implying that they’re introducing a new level of independence by creating open source systems that don’t lock you into the Windows or Mac or Google ecosystems. But it seems that even they can’t avoid China for their laptops.
And so while I do not recommend their laptops until they can be a little more transparent about country of origin, I will put a plug in for their desktop systems and their keyboards as long as they continue to make them in the US. Granted, like the systems above, many of the components are made in China (which is why that can’t fully say “made in the USA”), but give them points for trying.
Do you know of other laptops that have avoided the China trap? Let us know in the comments!