Articles like this are the reason why Ars Technica is on my reading list.
These lines from the article are especially revealing:
First, the essential details: Microsoft directly contacted a number of bloggers to offer them loaded laptops as "review units" (their language) which bloggers could chose to review, or not. Microsoft said that bloggers had the option of returning the laptop, giving it away as a prize, or just flat out keeping it. Many bloggers jumped at it, because a) Vista has not been released at the retail level yet, and b) having a laptop all ready to go means you don't have to futz with installing it on your own machine (and many of the bloggers were Mac users, to boot). The rest, as they say, is
Do you really think Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal goes to some secret underground Apple Store to buy his hot new iPod to review a month before it's even announced? Do you think hardware review sites sneak into processor fabs late at night to gain access to hardware samples that won't be on retail shelves for months? Do you really think they're sending all of that stuff back? Some are, some aren't, and to be honest, I have no idea if Mossberg keeps the top-secret stuff he's sent or not. For someone like Mossberg or someone like me, keeping the stuff isn't one-fifth as important as just having access to it in a timely fashion. That whole angle has been largely lost in this discussion, and it's a shame.
In fact, let me suggest where the real concern should be directed: at publications that aren't giving full disclosure when relying completely on PR-provided goods. In this situation with Microsoft, the only faux pas I see would be one wherein a hypothetical author wrote a glowing review without admitting that their access was completely provided by Microsoft. But I ask you, when's the last time you've seen a WSJ or CNET review prefaced with: "this review unit was accompanied by an NDA from Company X"? An editor at a big publication might roll their eyes at the idea of disclosing such things, but I can tell you as someone who has done the "tiny site with no recognition" thing, access can make or break you in a way that any benefits from keeping a review unit simply cannot.
The conclusion is particularly telling, isn't it?
Now you know why you should bookmark Ars Technica.