Potentially harmful effects of positive pressure mechanical ventilation have been recognized since its inception in the 1950s. Since then, the risk factors for and mechanisms of ventilator-induced lung injury (VILI) have been further characterized. Publication of the ARDSnet tidal volume trial in 2000 demonstrated that a ventilator strategy limiting tidal volumes and plateau pressure in patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome was associated with a 22 reduction in mortality. Since then, a variety of ventilator modes have emerged seeking to improve gas exchange, reduce injurious effects of ventilation, and improve weaning from the ventilator. We review here emerging ventilator modes in the intensive care unit (ICU). Airway pressure release ventilation seeks to optimize alveolar recruitment and maintain spontaneous ventilatory effort. It is associated with improved indices of respiratory and cardiovascular physiology, but data to support outcome benefit are lacking. High-frequency oscillatory ventilation is associated with improvements in gas exchange, but outcome data are conflicting. Extracorporeal modes of ventilation continue to evolve, and extra-corporeal CO2 removal is a technique that could be used in non-specialist ICUs. Proportional-assist ventilation and neutrally adjusted ventilator assist are modes that vary level of assistance with patient ventilatory effort. They result in greater patient-ventilator synchrony, but at present there is no evidence of a reduction in the duration of mechanical ventilation or outcome benefit. Although the use of many of these modes is likely to increase in intensive care units, further evidence of a beneficial effect is desirable before they are recommended.