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.

  • Adobe Systems (Nasdaq: ADBE)
  • Force Protection (Nasdaq: FRPT)
  • MercadoLibre (Nasdaq: MELI)
  • Veeco Instruments (Nasdaq: VECO)
  • Yamana Gold (NYSE: AUY)

Some of these names might surprise you. Software specialist Adobe Systems, for example, has been running the gamut of investor sentiment as earnings missed expectations only to be followed by rumors that Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) would make a bid to buy it. Almost great? Even familiar names can still offer some of the best opportunities. Perhaps we've just forgotten the potential they still hold.

And MercadoLibre has been rising quickly in the estimation of the CAPS community, despite confusing analysts by preselling its credit card receivables this quarter. Still, the Brazilian e-commerce company is bidding on future growth, and 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?
Back from the brink just a few months ago, Force Protection surprised the market with an earnings report that seems to offer little protection to investors. Adjusted earnings came in below expectations while GAAP numbers recorded a loss, but its light protected patrol vehicle could be the saving grace. Britain is moving ahead on purchasing a whole bunch while Australia could give Force Protection yet another win -- providing it beats out General Dynamics.

Yet 94% of the 908 CAPS members rating Force Protection think it can force market-beating results in the future. Military contracts do present a level of uncertainty, but at 13 times earnings it might just be cheap enough to warrant adding it to your portfolio. Not sure? Add the stock to your watchlist to get all the Foolish news and analysis aggregated for you.

A big opportunity
It's been a quarter of earnings surprises really, across many industries. LCD backlighting specialist Veeco Industries nearly quadrupled sales, reported monster earnings, and expanded margins -- but was hammered because of timing issues. Sales previously slated to be recognized in the fourth quarter now won't come about till the first quarter of 2011.

An investment in Veeco has always been about developing trends in the industry. Sure the flat-panel TV market was disrupted by the recession, but China's migration to digital signals and the potential to become the world's largest market for LCD TV's as Corning (NYSE: GLW) anticipates, suggests investors with a long-term outlook should use any weaknesses now to make substantial profits later.

CAPS member FoolSolo believes that looking at Veeco's performance compared to its peers provides plenty of reason to suspect this won't be a one-off matter.

[T]he company has good fundamental value, they are managing debt at reasonable levels, they have a massive spike in sales and earnings (Q/Q), they have one of the lowest P/FCF in their peer group, while having the best EPS projection for the next 5 yrs at 64.75%, a very respectable ROE of near 30%, and they are obviously in a growth industry. Hard to argue with such stellar performance.

With 95% of the 330 CAPS members rating Veeco to outperform the market, it seems clear they think the stock has a good chance of regaining its footing. Head over to the Veeco Instruments' CAPS page and let us know if you think the light's shining on this top pick.

A golden opportunity
With gold more than $1,400 an ounce, it's probably not surprising Yamana Gold was able to see revenues bulge 36% from the year-ago period. Look for more of that, too, as it seeks to expand production by 50% over the next few years, capturing what is likely to be another growth spurt for the precious metal.

As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his central banker ilk around the globe seek to debase world currencies, the case for gold only gets stronger. Even World Bank head Robert Zoellick has suggested using gold as some sort of reference point. That's not exactly calling for a return to a gold standard, a move that would fix the situation in a hurry, but it's a pretty large admission for a monetarist.

CAPS member TheDrewser would like to rival Peter Schiff as goldbug extraordinaire by saying we're only in the very early innings of a very long rise for gold: "We are in a 30 year Bull Market for Gold. Gold tops out near $3,000.00 when all is said and done."

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.

General Dynamics and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. MercadoLibre is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Adobe Systems is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. 

Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Adobe Systems and Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. 

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