In recent months, a lot of gadget makers (but mostly Apple, if we're honest) have faced a lot of public pressure about the working conditions in Chinese factories (mainly those run by Foxconn, if we're honest) where their devices are manufactured. This led me to ask the question last month: could Foxconn workers ever afford one of the iPhones they make? The answer: not without saving up the entirety of their earnings for several months.
All the fuss over the state of manufacturing in China led to another question I've heard from more than one reader in the past week: so, are there any decent smartphones not made in China?
This led to much head-scratching, followed by much more research. The short answer is: yes, but not many and probably not for much longer.
Here's the quick rundown of smartphone makers I found that source their devices, at least in part, from places other than China, with labor standards that are closer to what we might expect in America. But before you read any further, there are some huge caveats to keep in mind.
For one thing, a smartphone is a complicated device with dozens of components that come from all around the world, and the materials used to make those little components can be traced back to mines, smelters, labs, and other factories around the world. Your phone is a truly global citizen, and the odds are that some of those materials and components pass through China at some point. In fact, some raw materials that eventually wind up in your phone are mined from places in Africa by workers facing far worse hardships than your starting Foxconn worker.
But that's another story and I'm getting off track. Bottom line--our phones and the long industrial path they travel to wind up in our hands are just about as complex as the world we live in, so don't buy one of the phones below just to feel completely righteous the next time the topic of global working conditions comes up at a dinner party.
Then again, if you're interested in a smartphone that was at least assembled in a facility where conditions are a little closer to what you'd expect to see in Michigan rather than Shenzhen, here are your best bets (this is by no means a comprehensive list):
Nokia (N9 and some others)
It's a bit telling that your best chance at buying a Nokia phone actually made in Finland is the N9, which runs the discontinued MeeGo OS. Most of the N9s were made in Scandinavia, and the company also has manufacturing facilities in Hungary and Mexico, but not for long. Last month, Nokia announced it was moving all its device assembly operations to Asia (read China), a transition that's already been in the works for a while.
While Nokia is moving its phone-making operations out of Europe and into China, HTC is doubling down on keeping much of its production on its home island of Taiwan, with the construction of a new factory there. Last year the company announced plans to build another big production facility in Taiwan to handle increased demand. Check the box on any HTC phone and there's a very good chance it will say made in Taiwan.
Over the years, Research In Motion has used factories around the world, including in its native Canada, as well as in Hungary and China, to create the parts used in its smartphones and assemble the final product. Last year, RIM moved some of its production operations to a plant in Malaysia. That means there's a much better than average chance of getting a new BlackBerry made somewhere other than China.
Buying a flagship Samsung phone like the Galaxy Note is a bit of a crapshoot, with a fair amount made in both China and Korea. Even if you happen to get a Galaxy phone from a shipment that originated in Korea, however, it's likely that plenty of the parts are from China and the phone was merely assembled in South Korea. Samsung has also been making moves to set itself up deeper in China, with a planned new factory on the mainland to make chips for phones.
That's right--not all iPhones are created equal, or at least not all of them are created in China. Foxconn also has factories in countries outside Asia, and there have been reports that some new iPhones are already being produced by Foxconn in Brazil. Of course, we've yet to see a big expose on the working conditions at those facilities.
So, to sum it up, if you want a smartphone from somewhere other than China, I'd start with HTC or another of the brands above and give the box a good examination before you buy.