How to talk, text and send emoji like Dick Tracy on your Apple Watch

The Apple Watch offers a lot of ways to communicate. Here's what it can do and how to do it.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
5 min read

Watch this: How to talk, text and emoji like Dick Tracy on your Apple Watch

The Apple Watch handles a lot of communications. You can make phone calls, you can send and receive texts, and yes, you can even doodle or send your heartbeat. Apple Watch's communication skills have their advantages, but also some limits. Here's how to do everything, plus what you can't do.

To be clear, the Apple Watch isn't its own stand-alone communication device -- at least, not this first version. All Apple Watch communications require your iPhone to be on and receiving cell or data service: that's how the watch shows calls and messages. Your iPhone also needs to be connected to your watch via Bluetooth or on the same Wi-Fi network.

Responding to a text on Apple Watch: preset responses, emoji, or dictation. Sarah Tew/CNET

Texting (and emoji)

When people text or send iMessages, they pop up on the Apple Watch just like they do on the iPhone. You can click on one to reply, or click on the watch's side button to get to your favorite friends and send a text from there, or open up a stand-alone Messages app. You can also ask Siri to send a message to someone, if you dare.

Tapping "reply" brings up three ways to respond: by voice, with a list of prewritten quick messages, or using emoji. There's no keyboard.

Apple Watch dictated responses can be sent as text or audio clips. Sarah Tew/CNET

Voice dictation works like it does on Google's Android Wear watches: transcriptions are somewhat quick and generally accurate, but accidents do happen -- and there's no way to edit a message. You'll have to try again or you can send the actual audio message like on the iPhone. (I prefer the audio clip.)

Preset responses can be edited in the iPhone Apple Watch app. They're little words or phrases you can use as canned quick replies: "Yes," "maybe," "thanks," "running late" or "my salad just fell," whatever you wish.

The emoji are all here. Sarah Tew/CNET

Emoji offers up several ways to reply: first you'll see a big smiling face. Spinning the Digital Crown on the side of the watch morphs the face into all sorts of emotions. Stop on one (they're mostly bizarre), and click send. Or, press down to change the color of the face. Swipe left or right, and you can pick other emoji types, from animated hearts to animated disembodied hands, all of which take a little longer to send than regular messages. Finally, you can pick from hundreds of regular old-fashioned emoji; swipe till you see the emoji grid, then scroll down and pick the ones you want.

Making phone calls

The Apple Watch is like a little speakerphone. But it needs your iPhone to help receive and place those calls. Consider it a type of Bluetooth headset for your wrist.

If a call comes in, your watch will ring. You can tap to answer, and talk. The Apple Watch's built-in microphone picks up my voice in a regular room as well as the iPhone's speakerphone mode does. The Apple Watch also has a speaker, so you can listen. But the maximum volume's still pretty low, and you might need to raise your wrist to hear.

What about connecting Bluetooth headphones for a call? You can't. The Apple Watch currently doesn't let you make calls through a headset, oddly enough. And it also can't roll calls while you're listening to your iPhone with wired headphones; for instance, if you've got your phone in your pocket and headphones on and you place a call on Apple Watch, it'll be a speakerphone call only.

If you want to continue the call on your phone, unlock your iPhone and tap on the green bar at the top showing your in-progress phone call. You'll transfer it to the iPhone, and the Apple Watch call will seamlessly disconnect.

Sarah Tew/CNET

To make calls, you can click the side button on the watch to bring up a ring of your favorite contacts and spin the digital crown to pick one: tap and you can place a call by pressing the small phone-headset icon below your contact's name.

There's also a separate Watch app for phone calls: click the crown in to get to the app grid, swipe around to find the one that looks like a green phone icon, and tap to open a list of contacts, recent calls, favorites and voicemails. From here you can browse the lists and tap to call anyone.

Digital Touch: instant sketch-messages from Apple Watch to Apple Watch. Sarah Tew/CNET

Digital Touch: A social club for Apple Watch owners only

If you know anyone else who has an Apple Watch, congratulations! You're part of a special little group who can communicate with extra tools called Digital Touch.

To get to them, open up a contact on your friend ring (tap the side button) and then press the tiny center icon beneath their contact name: it looks like a pointing hand. The screen will then go blank and now you can instantly communicate using some funky tools.

Doodle: Draw on the screen with your finger, and you're sketching whatever you like. Smiley faces, a flower, a cartoon dinosaur. It's not easy to fit a lot on the small screen, but you can get creative. To change the color, tap the circle in the top right corner. The sketch is sent to an Apple Watch user exactly as you drew it, as if in real time. You'll get sketches from your Apple Watch friends the same way.

Tap: Quickly tapping on the screen can be used to send a little pattern of taps. Again, the other person will receive them at the speed and rhythm you tapped them in.

Sending your heartbeat...kinda weird. Sarah Tew/CNET

Heartbeat: Hold down two fingers on the screen and the Apple Watch will measure your actual heartbeat and send it out. You'll see and feel a throbbing heart under your fingers. It's an odd, intimate little party trick that's better for couples than casual acquaintances (trust me).

Communicating in other apps

Other apps allow some communication, too. Twitter allows favorites, retweets or replies by voice dictation, and other messaging apps are beginning to allow similar functions. For example, Mail is a built-in app on Apple Watch that allows you to read and delete messages but not reply.

Those are the basics. As the Apple Watch evolves, there are bound to be additional apps and techniques. Good luck!