This paper examines the performance of commercial scanning white light interferometers in a range of measurement tasks. A step height artefact is used to investigate the response of the instruments at a discontinuity, while gratings with sinusoidal and rectangular profiles are used to investigate the effects of surface gradient and spatial frequency. Results are compared with measurements made with tapping mode atomic force microscopy and discrepancies are discussed with reference to error mechanisms put forward in the published literature. As expected, it is found that most instruments report errors when used in regions close to a discontinuity or those with a surface gradient that is large compared to the acceptance angle of the objective lens. Amongst other findings, however, we report systematic errors that are observed when the surface gradient is considerably smaller. Although these errors are typically less than the mean wavelength, they are significant compared to the vertical resolution of the instrument and indicate that current scanning white light interferometers should be used with some caution if sub-wavelength accuracy is required.