Recently TrustedReviews was offered an invitation by well known motherboard and graphics card manufacturer MSI to visit its manufacturing facilities in China. This was an invitation that we accepted so last week on a Monday morning I found myself on a plane heading for Holland. Yup, Holland. Unfortunately, MSI wasnâ€™t able to get the small group of UK journalists on the trip a direct flight, so after waiting around in the absurdly flat land of clogs and tulips we got on another plane and headed off to the land of rice, communism and MSI. I was subjected to a long, uncomfortable flight, with the provided entertainment limited to a small TV of a type I thought had gone out with the Ark. Some ten frazzled hours later, I was there.
MSI is a Taiwanese company but has its main plant based in China for the simple reason that manufacturing costs are cheaper. In fact, the factory isnâ€™t in Shanghai but is in a nearby town called Kunshan â€“ a recently industrialised area thatâ€™s near Shanghai but without the cost. Sort of like the Milton Keynes of the east.
On the hour and a half journey out to the factory I got to see a smog filled and overcast Shanghai. My overwhelming impression was of a pretty westernised city full of bustling traffic and tall buildings and it reminded me of Bankok, Thailand. It was my first trip to China and it seemed odd to think that I was in a Communist country. Shanghai is certainly not a backward place. Which there was no Wi-Fi available in the hotel room, but there was an Ethernet socket with broadband access provided free. That was pretty cool and was markedly different from my experience in the rubbish hotel I stayed at in Las Vegas when I covered CES back in January. However, the fact that I was actually in a communist country was rammed home to me while trying to browse Wikipedia and the BBC News websites. In China both are banded due to content that the Chinese government doesnâ€™t approve of. Okayâ€¦
The name of the MSI tour was Dual Decade â€“ Dual CoreCell. Frankly, this didnâ€™t really mean anything to me until the first evening where I learned that MSI is 20 years old this year, which explains the Dual Decade part. As for the Dual CoreCell part, that was discussed the next day.
The story of MSIâ€™s beginnings is actually quite interesting. MSI actually owes its existence to Sony, who in the mid-eighties, fearing that the PC market was shrinking, let go five enginneers from its PC division. Sonyâ€™s loss was the IT industryâ€™s gain as the five close-knit workers decided to invest their own money to form a motherboard manufacturing company, established in 1986. Unfortunately, their financial skill was not matched by their engineering prowess and they managed to burn through $5 million dollars in one year â€“ enough to sink most fledgling companies. Fortunately, one of the wealthy fathers of the five lent them another $5 million and told them to have another go â€“ but they managed to get through this second $5 million even quicker than the first.
Their collective bacon was saved by the sudden popularity of one of MSIâ€™s products â€“ a motherboard for Intelâ€™s 286 CPU that proved to be highly overclockable - which sold out as fast as MSI could produce it. From then on MSI was set â€“ and itâ€™s been pushing the boundaries ever since - going public on the Taiwan Stock Exchange in 1997. I was surpised to learn that itâ€™s 60 per cent bigger than Gigabyte, which Iâ€™d actually heard of years before I was aware of MSI.
In order to protect itself from over reliance on the motherboard market MSI has expanded over the years into different areas. It entered the graphics card business in 1995, expanded to the Barebone and Server market in 1998 and 1999 respectively and moved into producing notebooks and consumer electronics in 2003. Currently, motherboards account for 40 per cent of its business.
MSI in Kunshan is not just a factory, but a whole complex that contains dormitories as many of its workers live on site â€“ it literally is their whole life.