Made in America
In times of economic hardship and recession, there are always calls from pundits to buy American-made products as much as possible. We’re not here to dispute whether or not this practice is good or bad for our economy. Instead, we want to imagine what would happen if we did try to buy American. How many people actually know where their technology comes from? The companies that churn out our favorite electronic toys are based all over the world–although nearly all consumer tech is actually made in China. We wanted to see if technophiles would suffer by only shopping for gadgets and consumer tech from companies based in the United States. Here are our case studies.
LCD TVs: Domestic
First up? LCD TVs. Vizio is one of the few U.S.-based television makers (headquarters in Irvine, Calif.). The company’s 47" LCD HDTV (VO47LF) comes with 1920x1080 resolution, two component-video inputs, and four HDMI inputs. A wider-than-usual angle for an LCD makes it a good choice for rooms where viewers might be off-center, like classrooms. At 62 lbs., it’s about what you’d expect for a TV of that size. Some reviewers say that not having a dedicated HD film mode means you get some jagged edges when watching HD film content. Still, at around $1,150, it’s a good choice if you’re trying to stay in the domestic market with competitive pricing.
LCD TVs: Foreign
Samsung’s (headquarters: Seoul, South Korea) 46" LN-46A850 LCD HDTV has 920x1080 resolution and comes loaded with extras, including Internet connectivity. All of these features, plus fact that it is only 1.8" thin, make the TV one of the most advanced on the market. The $2,000 price tag is hefty, but it is well worth it for the sleek design, picture quality, and HD film mode (so no jagged edges). Plus, it comes preloaded with content like games, exercise routines, and recipes–and at only 55 lbs., it will mount a little bit easier on your walls. The remote is back-lit so you can browse your shows in the dark.
LCD TVs: Analysis
On the foreign side of the TV market, the options are plentiful: Sony (Japanese), Samsung and LG (Korean), and Philips (Dutch) all offer options at different levels of price and design. For this market, buying American doesn’t limit consumers in panel quality or price–but in the long run, American companies will be slower to get the features and slimness of their foreign counterparts. While Vizio has taken a good chunk of the market share in the U.S., Samsung remains the leader worldwide, which allows it more flexibility to try new things. In sum, if you were only to buy from American-based companies, your TV might be lagging behind when it comes to cool new designs.
Multi-Function Printers: Domestic
In the world of printers, more is better. Now that printers that can double as scanners and copy machines, printers like Lexmark’s (headquarters: Lexington, KY) X4975 are part of a large and productive family. At around $180, this printer has lots of features, like the ability to preview photos on a 1.7" LCD viewer and built-in WiFi. It has memory-card support and a PictBridge connection for printing photos directly from a camera. An automatic document feeder is included and the printer can automatically print on both sides of a page. The main downside of the printer is that text printing costs are higher than with comparable models and you may have to squint to see the viewer. Also, there’s no built-in fax capability.
Multi-Function Printers: Foreign
Canon’s (headquarters: Tokyo, Japan) Pixma MP620 will set you back about $140 and also doesn’t have a built-in fax. It does have a cheaper text printing price, which is nice. The LCD viewer is 2.2" and tiltable, making an easier task of seeing your photos before printing. Like the Lexmark, the Canon has built-in WiFi, memory-card support, and a PictBridge connection for printing photos directly from a camera. For easier printing of different paper or sizes, the printer has a separate second tray. The Canon printers have excellent printing quality in both text and photos, and if you’re not running a big home business, this could be all you’d ever need for day-to-day printing.
Multi-Function Printers: Analysis
In the case of printers, shopping American won’t make you sacrifice much. There are so many cheap, reliable printers on the market that you can look anywhere to find what you need. Most people aren’t doing reams of printing, so the cost of text doesn’t make a huge difference. For people who are looking for the speed of a laser printer, the market remains open between U.S. brands like Lexmark and HP, and Asian brands like Epson, Canon, and Samsung.
HD Camcorders: Domestic
The FlipMino HD (Flip’s headquarters: San Jose, Calif.) was created for uploading snippets to video sites. Smaller than a pack of cards, the HD camcorder has an solid-state drive and USB output to go directly into your computer. Like the previous Flip products, there is no optical zoom and only a 2x digital zoom–the camera won’t work on your African lion-gazing trips. If you want to catch your buddies doing some sweet ski jumps, though, you might be in luck. Plus, the camera only costs about $220–so you don’t have to feel too guilty if something bad happens to it. The quality won’t make you the next Martin Scorsese, but that’s not the idea when it comes to pocket-worthy handhelds to capture your YouTube moments. The big drawback is that YouTube doesn’t support HD video, but that may change.
HD Camcorders: Foreign
Sony’s (headquarters: Tokyo, Japan) HDR-CX12 is a completely different animal from the tiny Flip. At $900, it’s in a different price range, too. The Sony camcorder uses flash memory cards to record, and since Sony makes its own memory, you will be locked into a more expensive media format. With features like image stabilizing and performance in both low-light and bright situations, it’s a camera that’s easy to have around to capture family moments in HD. The optical zoom is 12x, so you’ll get a good view at soccer games where the action is not that close. And the camera only weighs one pound, so it’s easy to lug around, but just be careful it doesn’t get thrown into a backpack with too much gusto.
HD Camcorders: Analysis
For camcorders, shopping domestic leaves just a few options: Kodak and Flip. Both of these OEMs offer good small camcorders for regular-quality video to upload to the Internet, but neither makes the kind of technology that will produce video to keep for your children. These companies chose to create a whole new market rather than try to join the camcorder bonanza from foreign companies. By entering the game with products that retail for around $200, the direct-to-Internet camcorders have found a spot–and with Flip (which was just bought by Cisco) garnering 20% of the domestic market, the spot seems to be a big one. Still, if you want something with more precision, quality, and focus, you’re going to have to look to companies based outside the United States. Buying American simply doesn’t leave enough options for this category.
Digital Cameras: Domestic
Kodak’s (headquarters: Rochester, N.Y.) EasyShare M1093 is a good 10 MP camera for $200. It has a 3X zoom with simulated image stabilization for far-off shots, and can shoot pictures up to 800 ISO with good image quality, making it totally ready for low-light situations. The 3" LCD screen means you don’t have to squint when you’re showing off what you snapped. The delay between photos is fairly short. The downsides? Some users report that the image stabilizer doesn’t work as well as it should perhaps because it is simulated instead of being based on the body or the lens of the camera.
Digital Cameras: Foreign
Canon (headquarters: Tokyo, Japan) has grown its Digital Elph line from the days of 3 megapixel bulky cameras, to now, when you can slide a digital camera into your pocket or purse and forget it’s there. The SD1100IS Elph comes with a 3x zoom and an optical image stabilizer. For around $170, it can do everything you need a digital camera to do. The delay between taking pictures is short, and it does a good job of focusing on faces. Also included is an optical viewfinder, which means you can peek through in bright light situations and find your picture. According to some reviewers, the flash is placed too close to where your hands might grip the camera, so you can accidentally obscure it.
Digital Cameras: Analysis
If you browse the digital camera isle at your local electronics store, you’ll see lots of names–Olympus, Canon, Leica, Nikon, and Pentax–from companies based outside the United States. For domestic options, only HP and Kodak are still standing. While you won’t sacrifice too much in the way of quality in buying only from these companies, the leaps in satisfying gadget technology don’t come as quickly to the domestic market. Japanese and Korean companies, being closer to the factories in China, are better able to negotiate cheap deals with the manufacturers, and are more likely to drop prices for consumers. So, to get more bang for your buck, you’ll have to look across the Pacific ocean for deals.
Gaming Consoles: Domestic
Microsoft (headquarters: Redmond, WA) threw its hat into the gaming ring for a second time with the Xbox 360 in spring of 2005, and has scored a hit with consumers. The Xbox allows players to compete with each other online and download games, movies, and extras via the Xbox Live service, its biggest original draw. Microsoft reports that as of January 2009, 28 million units have been sold worldwide, making it a serious contender. It comes with a DVD player and the console is available in three different levels (and price points): Arcade, Pro, and Elite.
Gaming Consoles: Foreign
The U.S. base for Nintendo (global headquarters: Kyoto, Japan) lies less than one mile from Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington–and despite the physical closeness, a battle has been raging between the two in the gaming world. Nintendo’s paradigm-shifting Wii, at $250, has exploded the genre of console gaming to include everyone from tweens to housewives to nonagenarians. Its controller is a handheld pointing device and a detector of movement in three dimensions. Nintendo, reporting sales of 50 million units worldwide in January of 2009, has patented its particular kind of game play and has set up a good base to bring in even more users.
Gaming Consoles: Analysis
The gaming universe is different from that of printers and cameras because there are only three major players: Sony’s PS3, the Wii, and the Xbox 360. Each has its specific flaws and virtues and it really comes down to personal preference. In worldwide sales, Nintendo is winning because it is growing the world of gamers by itself and appeals to a far larger audience. If you were to have only the Xbox 360 to play, the game options wouldn’t be too different (both systems boast certain exclusive deals), but you might be missing out on the dynamic nature of the Wii. American children, especially, would not get to experience innovative (and perhaps, someday, educational) game play like the Wii offers. Another factor to consider in the long-term prospects of console gaming: while both Microsoft and Sony have taken losses on their console systems in hopes of making future revenue in software sales, Nintendo actually makes a small profit (anywhere from $6 to $79, depending on the location) on each gaming console it sells. This could set Nintendo up better for the next great leap into the future. The ball is now in Microsoft’s court to capture those users that the Wii is creating.
Dell (headquarters: Round Rock, TX) is chasing the design curve led by Apple with its new Adamo laptop. Thinner than the MacBook Air at .65"–except for the back of the laptop, where the ports are–the Adamo is Dell’s way of reaching out to the market segment that wants style and high performance in a PC laptop. The Adamo, with a 13.4" screen and a weight of 4 lbs., also costs a hefty amount: either $2,000 or $2,700, depending on component options. A Core 2 Duo low-voltage processor means it is ready to roll on a lot of computing projects, but unfortunately its five hours of quoted battery life is just average.
Lenovo (headquarters: Beijing, China) made the ThinkPad X301 ready to do some serious business. At just 0.7" thick and 3.3 .lbs, it is definitely in the same league as the Adamo and the MacBook Air. The price, too, is similar: around $2,000 to start. The downside? If you choose the extra options like the extended-life battery and the extra RAM, you could end up paying much more than for comparable models. Still, the computer’s resolution is better than what the competition offers and it boasts a 64 GB solid-state drive, DVD burner, and the same Core 2 low-voltage processor as the Adamo. For business users who are constantly jetting across continents, the Lenovo X301 scores high in the performance and portability departments.
Like choosing a life partner, deciding on a laptop is an arduous process. If you could only shop in the domestic department, your choices would still be numerous–between Dell, Apple, HP, and Compaq, there are literally a hundred options. If you’re looking for luxe, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to purchase from U.S. companies. However, on the netbook end of the laptop spectrum–the small, light, inexpensive portion of the market–U.S. vendors just can’t keep up with foreign competitors. Asian companies like Asus, Acer, MSI, and even Lenovo have an edge when it comes to price.
So, would we gadget-lovers suffer if we could only buy American gear? Eventually, yes. Sure, we’d live with our homegrown tech companies (which, in general, are slightly more expensive and mildly slower to adopt new technology). But frankly, what keeps American tech companies innovating is the constant race of ideas around the globe—the mishmash of ideas from China to the Netherlands to Silicon Valley. Taking the United States out of that exchange by force-limiting the competitive market and giving consumers less choice, would be a detriment to U.S. technological innovation.