Some companies are obviously great investments -- in hindsight. Yet for every stock out there screaming "buy me," others simply give us a nudge and a nod. How can we tell tomorrow's obviously great investments from the thousands of pretenders?

The stars' walk of fame
On Motley Fool CAPS, these opportunities can be found among our four-star stocks. In CAPS' proprietary ratings system, they rank higher than most of the other 5,400 starred companies, but they're just shy of superstardom. While all the attention might be focused on their five-star peers, we can sift through CAPS to find four-star firms approaching greatness. Here are a handful of four-star firms approaching greatness.

  • Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO)
  • Lihua International (Nasdaq: LIWA)
  • NIVS IntelliMedia Technology (NYSE: NIV)
  • Xyratex (Nasdaq: XRTX)
  • Zalicus (Nasdaq: ZLCS)

Some of these names might surprise you. Cisco, for example, produces equipment that has been called the backbone of the Internet. Almost great? Even familiar names can still offer some of the best opportunities. Perhaps we've just forgotten the potential they still hold.

Despite going up against some industry giants like Tyco Electronics, magnet and fine copper wire maker Lihua International is expecting profits to grow 50% in 2010 on the continued strength in demand for electronics. However, the 170,000-plus CAPS members chose these companies as less obvious sources for tomorrow's great buys, so let's see why they might merit your attention.

In the sight of greatness?
The fears surrounding Chinese small-cap stocks these days is almost palpable, and the spate of problems with their financials being reported is not doing anything to help. Yet "guilt by association" is tarring many companies that don't seem to present the level of concerns that others do.

One such company is NIVS IntelliMedia Technology, a maker of intelligent audio and visual products as well as mobile phones, whose stock has traded sideways at around the $2 range for a while. Some have expressed concerns about their having an unknown auditor doing the books, but it's hard to mandate every small-cap company hire a Big Four accounting firm, nor is it really necessary.

And earlier this year China Telecom contracted with them to build its new 3G phones, and they're expecting that segment of the business to now add $80 million to $100 million in revenues this year. They're also working with China Mobile and China Unicom to build out the division.

Highly rated CAPS All-Star openhandedgrouse says if you add it all up, NIVS IntelliMedia is a good buy at its current low price.

Currently showing high growth and profitability Should have increasing growth and profitability over next few years with new facility and production lines currenty hiring Should be more profitable in Q3 and Q4 NIV is way undervalued at 2.10 increasing brand recognition could lead to increased margins research and development division speculation. This is the largest position I own in RL around 2.08

On the shoulders of giants
The storage sector is the hot sector these days, with just about anything in tech seemingly on the table. We hear a lot about cloud computing and storage from VMWare (NYSE: VMW), solid-state drives from STEC (Nasdaq: STEC), and the ability of standard storage devices to compete on price from Western Digital. The good feelings surrounding this niche is bound to help another storage specialist Xyratex, whose profits tripled last quarter yet it sports a low valuation.

Highly rated CAPS All-Star member TMFZahrim says the market is missing a unique opportunity when it passes over Xyratex.

Whether the market eventually corrects this obvious imbalance between business strength and market cap or one of the big boys decide to buy out this industrywide parts provider, loading up on Xyratex today seems nearly guaranteed to produce nice returns.

A big opportunity
Biopharmaceutical Zalicus might be a biotech that's flying below your radar. With one product on the market and several in development, it could become a high-flying stock -- assuming the Food and Drug Administration doesn't pull one of its surprise rulings on any of its drugs.

Right now Zalicus is generating royalties from its pain medication Exalgo that it licenses to Covidien, but it also has R&D agreements with a number of organizations and companies, including Amgen and Novartis that contribute significant amounts of revenue.

CAPS member llgrout is keeping his enthusiasm in check for the time being, expecting Zalicus to offer up market-beating results, though not anticipating it becoming a barn-burner: "The price is right at current. Company is becoming more profitable. Will not be explosive, but should see some positive gains."

More than 97% of all CAPS All-Star members rating Zelicos, also believe it will outperform in the future, but you can head over to the Zelicos CAPS page and let us know if you think this biotech will relieve investor pain in the future.

A great opportunity for you
Investor sentiment suggests these four-star investments still seem to be on their way to five-star greatness, but it pays to start your own research on these stocks on Motley Fool CAPS. Read a company's financial reports, scrutinize key data and charts, and examine the comments your fellow investors have made all from a stock's CAPS page.

Sign up today for the completely free service and let us hear what you have to say about the great and almost great companies that interest you.

Covidien is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. VMware is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Novartis is a Motley Fool Global Gains choice. The Fool has written calls (bull call spread) on Cisco Systems. The Fool owns shares of China Mobile. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. 

Fool contributor Rich Duprey currently does not own any stocks as you can see here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.