I have about ten computers in different locations based on different motherboards, so your problem is very familiar to me. Over the years I have developed a largely free backup system which satisfies me. It relies partly on hardware (not free), partly on software (free) and on careful organization. On-screen all my computers now look exactly the same and behave in exactly the same manner.
All computers have only one small hard drive, the smallest but fastest SSD I can find at the time, each formatted with a 32G primary partition. Anything remaining is left unused to speed up cloning. This drive contains only the system (XP in my case) and all registered programs but no portable programs. This drive is cloned as a backup (I use Acronis, but free cloning software is available from http://www.macrium.com/reflectfree.aspx)
All data and portable programs are kept on external USB drives, one of which travels with me where ever I go. The new USB3 1TB drives are excellent for the purpose and if you buy or build a computer, you should make sure that it has USB3 ports.
Other than the cloning software for the system drive, no commercially or freely available software is used for backing up data. Everything is done with simple home-made batch programs for complete control over what is backed up and how it is backed up.
The system depends on meticulous organization of the data, especially on the drive that travels from one computer to the next and which turns out to be the hub of the system (G:XFER on my system). The way I have organized the data will not suit everybody and this is something you have to work out for yourself over time. There should, however, be one folder on your XFER drive which contains the masters of all programs you regularly use so that each computer can be updated when the need arises.
As for hard drives dying, you should, of course, have backups of your backups.
- Secure. If you catch a virus, your clone will get rid of it.
- Off site backup storage.
- As customizable as you can get.
- Independent of bugs and "features" of supplied software.
- Cheapest possible solution as far as hardware is concerned.
- No other expenses.
- Easily upgradable to exploit latest technology.
- Does not rely on anyone's computer other than your own.
- Faster than any other method.
- You have to learn a tiny bit of batch programming. Not much of a disadvantage.
- Organizing your data does take time, often a lot of it. But it also saves a lot of time.