This is also a factor in the price of the scanner. Inexpensive scanners often bundle simple photo programs, friendly to novices. The better models often bundle more versatile programs. However, the free OCR programs that are often bundled may be disappointing. If you use OCR much, you may want to upgrade the OCR software.
Top of the line, or Bargain Basement?
How much did you spend for your camera? If you shop for the lowest price and best buy, get the economy model flatbed scanner. Today's scanners are pretty nice, and you'll be happy with it. For web site or casual home or hobby use, for photo prints and documents, it's plenty. I would spend a little more than the cheapest models, but $125 US will buy a decent flatbed for scanning color photo prints.
If you generally buy the better models of things, then get a better scanner too. Scanners are indeed optical instruments. Better scanners have features like high quality optical lens, greater dynamic range, lower noise levels, finer steps on the stepping motor, much faster interfaces, and better bundled software. Other than speed, these may be subtle features on the surface, and some of us may never notice, but many people, particularly the commercial users, think spending a little more is very worthwhile.
Frankly, in scanning, like in photography, I believe that user skill and attention can make a greater difference than the equipment. The quality of the original photo is quite important too, and the tools do count, like in photography, the pros don't use the cheapest stuff. But a little skill can compensate for a lot, and like photography, I'd bet on inexpensive equipment in skilled hands over a rank novice with all the best equipment. But the scanning skill is easy enough to acquire, it only requires being interested enough to investigate.
Home and web site goals are typically light requirements for a scanner. Prices have plummeted, a $125 flatbed scanner is pretty decent for scanning photo prints, but it is far from the best model. Scanners in the range of $500 and up are faster, and primarily provide better dynamic range, which is really only needed for scanning film.
However, if you are scanning 35 mm film, only a good 35 mm film scanner will do for critical results. You can make do with much less to scan a few photos, but for film, don't think that a $300 scanner is the same as a $1500 scanner. Commercial work will want the best scanners, and this buys quality, primarily dynamic range needed only for film.
It's really just like everything else, cameras, stereo, computers, roller skates and bowling balls, serious hobbyists always want the better models too. A Cadillac is very nice, but the Chevy will get you to the grocery store just fine. Many drivers doubt the Cadillac's luxury and options are worth the extra money. Yet those with the money often think they are. <grin>
The Software User Interface
Last but certainly not least. This one is a biggie, but one you cannot compare very well without using the scanner. Some scanner manufacturers put their software user manuals online (see the links page).
Don't minimize the importance of the scanner software. Everything is done with software. The scanning software IS the scanner to the user. It is the tool we have to work with, the software is our perception of the scanner. Software goals vary considerably among brands. Some are intentionally very simple and some are more versatile and powerful. The magazine reviews don't tell us much about this. They just compare default images without discussing the capability to improve that image.
Some software is designed for novices, to be automatic and simple, like HP PrecisionScan and Umax VistaScan 3.5. Some are designed to be much more useful for more experienced users, like Umax MagicScan and Microtek ScanWizard. I compare them to cameras... there are cheap one button cameras, fancy one button cameras, and cameras with enough controls that you can do anything you know how to do. It seems important that you match with one that matches your goals.
There are several representative examples of scanner software shown online here, following at the Next button below.
For a few links to scanner reviews, see the links page.