There will always be companies that are "obviously" great investments -- in hindsight. There are companies every investor is telling us to "buy now," even though we haven't heard of them yet. They could be tomorrow's obvious investment greats. And beside the great investments, there are companies that are very, very good, but investors hold back on giving them a full endorsement.

Over on the investor intelligence site Motley Fool CAPS, we know these "almost great" investments as four-star stocks. They rank higher than almost all the other 5,000 stocks that have been rated in the CAPS universe but fall just short of garnering that fifth star for the coveted rating.

While the full "secret sauce" of how the ratings are calculated is kept proprietary, there are three factors that influence a stock's star rating:

  • Whether a stock is rated "outperform" or "underperform"
  • The length of time it is expected to perform (a few months or a few years)
  • The ratings of the investors who make the picks.

Yep! Every player is rated, just as every stock is rated. The best and brightest of these players are All-Stars, and since they are correct more consistently than their peers, their opinions weigh more heavily in favor of (or against!) a stock.

So while the attention might be focused on the five-star stocks, good investments might slip under the radar with only four stars, and we can sift through them to find some of the best. Here are some of the best four-star companies with stocks that have only just missed being obviously great:

  • AT&T (NYSE:T)
  • eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY)
  • Amgen (NASDAQ:AMGN)
  • Alcoa (NYSE:AA)
  • General Electric (NYSE:GE)

You might find it surprising that some of these companies are considered "almost great." Isn't eBay's its industry's leader? General Electric hasn't had a storied history? What looks to us like obvious greatness is a lot more complex to the 65,000 investors on CAPS, so let's delve into what some top investors say about these companies.

More than 2,200 investors have weighed in on AT&T, and more than one out of five is an All-Star, meaning their player rating exceeds at least 80% of the other players. For example, top CAPS investor adoratium, with a rating of 99.92%, thinks AT&T's collaboration with Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone will be at least a short-term growth driver.

iPhone should help the stock in the near/mid term. For the long term the company is on track with some [of] its major products such as LightSpeed. AT&T's now total ownership of Cingular and its rebranding will also help the company.

Another All-Star, yalenewb, with a 99.53% player rating, concurs that the iPhone helps but sees several other factors coming into play.

Steady dividend, good growth potential, iPhone clearly helps it out. regardless of the $ that it has to pay apple locking up further customers for longer and longer service contracts aids there business, brings in revenue for the next 5-7 years guaranteed and allows them to compete in infrastructure with sprint and verizon and actually create some good service quality

Not every investor thinks AT&T can unseat Verizon (NYSE:VZ), or that the iPhone is the company's savior. CAPSter coolbrisa has some thoughtful contrarian opinions.

Because the AAPL I-phone turned out to be a virtual dog, which didn't hurt AAPL, it did put a damper on things for the new AT&T. Cingular Wireless cannot hold a candle to Verizon, though I realize there is much more to the T than cellular service. In terms of service, we will just have to see about all that! Since the merger, there stock has remained steady, if not a point lower on average. A real dud if you ask me.

The CAPS community speculates that the breaking point for keeping the venerable phone company from achieving five-star stardom is its iPhone collaboration with Apple. While CEO Steve Jobs made good on his promise of 1 million iPhones sold in a brief amount of time, hacks are coming out that unlock it for other service carriers. You might yet be able to have Sprint service on your iPhone.

Of course, for every update you download from Apple, there might be a patch that disables the hack. We might then witness a game of one-upmanship between the hacks and Apple. But more important: Will that continuing relationship allow AT&T to garner five-star greatness?

A great opportunity for you
That's the current word on AT&T, but what are your feelings about Amgen, eBay, Alcoa, and GE? Are these four-star stocks still investment grade material? On Motley Fool CAPS, you can give your input, which can ultimately influence how they're rated. Outperform or underperform, near-term or well into the future, your opinion counts.

Sign up today for Motley Fool CAPS; it's completely free. Let's us hear what you have to say about the great and almost great companies that interest you.

eBay is a recommendation of Motley Fool Stock Advisor. A 30-day, risk-free trial subscription shows why the stock selection service that's beating the market by 38 percentage points thinks the company is a five-star investment anyway.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.