Surface-emitting semiconductor lasers can make use of external cavities and optical pumping techniques to achieve a combination of high continuous-wave output power and near-diffraction-limited beam quality that is not matched by any other type of semiconductor source. The ready access to the laser mode that the external cavity provides has been exploited for applications such as intra-cavity frequency doubling and passive mode-locking. The purpose of this Topical Review is to outline the operating principles of these versatile lasers and summarize the capabilities of devices that have been demonstrated so far. Particular attention is paid to the generation of near-transform-limited sub-picosecond pulses in passively mode-locked surface-emitting lasers, which are potentially of interest as compact sources of ultrashort pulses at high average power that can be operated readily at repetition rates of many gigahertz
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