Abstract Single-mode diodes enable a particularly simple, compact and effective pumping of solid-state laser devices for many specialized applications. We investigated a single-mode, 300-mW laser diode for pumping at 935 nm a Yb:YAG laser passively mode-locked by a semiconductor saturable absorber. Relatively short pulse generation (156 fs), tunable across 1033–1059 nm has been demonstrated. An optical-to-optical efficiency of about 28% has been obtained with 320 fs long pulses. Therefore, contrarily to what previously believed, compact diode-pumped ultrafast Yb:YAG oscillators can reliably and efficiently deliver pulses in the range of ≈ 100–200 fs with few tens of mW, which are very appealing for bio-diagnostics and amplifier seeding applications.